Podcast Episode 17: Venting on the Ravens Thursday night loss to the Bengals

Welcome to episode 17 of the Charm City Bird Watch Podcast with site owner Jake McDonnell, editor Nolan McGraw, and author Ian Schultz.

The show begins with a lengthy discussion on the Ravens week 2 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals (3:50). Nolan, Jake, and Ian sift through all the things that went wrong for the Ravens, including the defense’s struggles, the offensive play calling, and the untimely penalties. As usual Joe Flacco is the center of focus following a loss but this time there is an actual debate to be had. Did Flacco actually have a bad game?

The Ravens loss was disappointing but at least we got to watch the Steelers and Browns lose in dramatic fashion on Sunday. The guys give their reactions to the way the division looks after two games before diving into all the sweet drama coming out of the Steelers organization (32:20).

The football talk concludes with the crew looking ahead to the Ravens week three matchup with the Broncos (39:25). Nolan, Jake, and Ian highlight their keys to the game and give score predictions.

The end of the 2018 Orioles season can’t come soon enough but we have to talk about them in the meantime (47:25). Nolan asks Jake and Ian if they think the O’s can get to 50 wins. Unsurprisingly the conversation spirals into frustration as Jake hopes he can see Adam Jones play in person one last time before his career in Baltimore is over.

The show concludes with the “what and idiot” and numbers segments. Last week Nolan had his problems with a utility company but now Jake has some venting to do after recently moving (52:20). There were a handful of players to highlight for the number 17 as well. Listen along and see if you can guess them with the crew (59:30).

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Can the 2018 Ravens defense be trusted?

As the Ravens prepare to get their 2018 campaign underway, fans are wondering what the team will do this year. When you combine the pressure to rebound from missing the playoffs three years in a row with a tough schedule, you have a scenario with little room for error.

For many the defense is a sign of strength as the season approaches. After retaining almost everyone from last year’s squad and adding some intriguing draft picks, this feeling is justified but as much as I want to, I can’t subscribe to this mentality. The Ravens defense was far too inconsistent in 2017 and it’s going to take some convincing before I put my trust in them again this year.

In the 2017 offseason, the Ravens retooled their defense in free agency and the draft. By bringing in the likes of Brandon Carr and Tony Jefferson, the front office seemed determined to fix the depth issues that plagued the secondary in previous seasons. When the draft rolled around it became evident that they were going to neglect the offense, but it didn’t matter because the defense was about to return to the days of old when the likes of Ray Lewis and Ed Reed patrolled the field and struck fear into the hearts of every opposing team.

This excitement was only natural and honestly there was nothing wrong with it. On paper the defense had an exceptional amount of depth, especially on the defensive line and in the secondary. However, the second that excitement turned into expectations, we were only setting ourselves up for disappointment.

The brand new Ravens defense dominated in the 2017 preseason, which only raised those expectations to extreme heights. When I say dominate, I mean it. During that four-game preseason campaign, the Ravens defense held their opponents to just 7.5 points and 206 yards-per-game while also forcing six turnovers.

Even the local media started to get on the hype train. A countless amount of outlets couldn’t resist the urge to compare the 2017 defense’s potential to the historic defensive units in team history. At the time I thought it was stupid but when the regular season kicked off in Cincinnati, the defense looked nothing short of historic. They forced five turnovers, including four interceptions by Andy Dalton, a quarterback who often picked apart the Ravens in previous seasons. When the final seconds ticked off the clock, the Ravens had successfully held their division foe to zero points.

A debut like this only strengthened the argument that the 2017 defense was the real deal. Throughout the rest of the season, the Ravens defense came up with two more shutouts and led the league in turnovers. These are just two of the biggest accomplishments for last year’s defense but the Ravens still finished the season with a 9-7 record and missed out on the playoffs for the third straight year.

How could this be? How could a team with such a dominant defense finish 9-7? Ask the average Ravens fan and they will tell you the offense was to blame. Well, I’m here to tell you that the defense is just as responsible, if not more, for the way the 2017 season played out.

Lets start by acknowledging the offense’s flaws. I previously mentioned the lack of attention given to the offense during the 2017 offseason and early on that looked like a serious detriment to the team. Throw in Joe Flacco’s back injury and some unbelievably predictable play-calling by Marty Mornhinweg, and things weren’t looking too hot. However, if you erase all touchdowns scored by the defense and special teams, the Ravens offense still managed to put up at least 20 points in 12 of their 16 games. Those other four games all ended up being loses, with the offense averaging just 10.5 points in them.

It’s performances like these that make Flacco and company an easy target for blame. However, in those four loses the Ravens defense allowed 28.5 points per game, making only one (week six against Chicago) actually winnable in crunch time. A pair of special teams touchdowns helped the Ravens keep the game alive, but in overtime it was the defense that choked by allowing Mitch Trubisky and Jordan Howard to walk 71 yards down the field with ease for a game-winning field goal.

This leads me to one of my biggest gripes with the 2017 defense, and that is the level of competition they faced. After a mass wave of season-ending injuries plagued the NFL, the Ravens defense ended up facing five offenses led by a rookie or backup quarterback. Their 4-1 record in those games is not a surprise considering they avoided quarterbacks like Aaron Rodgers and Derek Carr. I can’t tell you what the record would be if they faced healthier teams but I would be willing to bet that two of their three shutouts (Green Bay & Miami) wouldn’t have happened if that was the case.

Unfortunately that previously mentioned loss against Chicago was not an isolated incident. Even the best defenses in the league are prone to being exposed every once in a while but that was not the case for the Ravens last year.

After the bye week the offense started to turn the corner. Flacco had more chemistry with his receivers and Alex Collins emerged as a legitimate threat in the backfield. Outside of a Sunday night matchup with the Steelers, the Ravens second half schedule was softer than a pillow. A playoff berth was still very much in sight and as long as the defense maintained their high level of play down the stretch, the Ravens would surely be back in the mix come January.

As we know now, that didn’t happen. The Ravens went 5-2 in their last seven games after the bye week. That doesn’t sound bad as an isolated stat, but the fact that the two losses could be boiled down to one play makes things way worse. In Pittsburgh the defense only needed to make one stop at any point in the fourth quarter and the Ravens would have had the edge in the offensive shootout. Fast forward to week 17 and the defense failed, once again, to make the one stop necessary with the game on the line.

As we prepare to enter the 2018 season, I look at the defense and I see a depth chart that pretty much mirrors what we saw last year. So I ask you, can the 2018 Ravens defense be trusted? Don’t get me wrong, I want nothing but success for this team and if they stay healthy I think they have an opportunity to really grow as a unit.

Health is just one of many variables standing in their way. Even if the defense keeps its big play-makers on the field, the pressure to succeed is being placed on the shoulders of new defensive coordinator Don Martindale. I compiled a lot of issues in the paragraphs above, but how many of them could have been avoided without Dean Pees calling plays? A lot of people seem to think most of them, but that doesn’t change the fact that Martindale is still rather unproven as a defensive coordinator.

Need more variables? How about Jimmy Smith? The Ravens top tier cornerback will be absent for the first four weeks of the season as he serves a suspension. When it comes to Smith’s impact, the numbers pretty much speak for themselves. With Smith on the field the last two seasons, opposing quarterbacks averaged a passer raring of 76.1. When Smith was out, that average rating increased to 91.5. To make things worse, two of the Ravens’ first four games will be road tests against the Bengals and Steelers.

Guess who wasn’t on the field when the Ravens faced Pittsburgh and Cincinnati down the stretch last season? There is no way to dispute it. Smith’s presence could have easily been the difference between a win and loss in those two games.

As always the numbers make a more compelling argument. When Smith faced off against Cincinnati’s A.J Green and Pittsburgh’s Antonio Brown in the first half of 2017, he allowed just two receptions and 27 yards. After being sidelined with a season-ending injury, Green and Brown brought in 13 receptions and racked up 230 yards while running wild against the rest of the Ravens secondary.

My final variable is the health and depth of the defense. At the end of the day health is a something that you don’t always have control over and that’s scary. We saw the difference in results when Smith went down, but what if another cornerstone of this defense, like Brandon Williams or Terrell Suggs, misses time? The absence of either of these players would handicap the pass rush and run defense significantly.

We don’t have to speculate because the Ravens defense has already taken a hit with a couple preseason injuries. DeShon Elliott and Stanley Jean-Baptiste were not primed to be starters but their season-ending injuries have an impact on the team’s depth which could become a bigger problem as the season progresses.

The worst defensive injury of the preseason wasn’t even a season-ending one. Rookie linebacker Kenny Young came on strong this preseason and challenged Patrick Onwuasor for the second starting middle linebacker position. Even if he didn’t get the starting role, he would have likely seen significant playing time but now there are questions surrounding his knee. The team’s depth at middle linebacker is pretty thin with or without Young, which has me concerned moving forward.

Just like last year, there is a ton of potential to be found when looking at the Ravens defense. Who knows, the offense is certainly looking more capable going into this season so the need for a lockdown defense may not be as necessary as last year. I just worry that between the variables listed above and a tough schedule, the defense will be put under extreme pressure this year.

Image credit: Patrick Semansky / AP

Ravens need to win big over Bills on Sunday

BALTIMORE — When the Baltimore Ravens kick the 2018 season off against Buffalo on Sunday, the direction of the franchise hangs in the balance.

For the Ravens, this year’s week 1 contest brings more than just another season opener. Jobs are on the line. Head coach John Harbaugh feels more pressure now than ever to win after missing the playoffs three years in a row. In some ways, this feeling is new to Harbaugh. After all, his first losing season as the Ravens’ head coach did not come until his eighth season.

Some called Harbaugh lucky when Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti elected to go forward with his head coach after a gut-wrenching ending to the 2017 season at the hands of the Cincinnati Bengals. Missing three consecutive postseasons, sometimes even two in a row, gets NFL head coaches fired. Even those close to the team don’t know for sure if Harbaugh is on the ‘hot seat,’ but a fourth consecutive year without a playoff berth seems almost impossible for Harbaugh to overcome.

While Harbaugh doesn’t see an immediate threat that could lead to him losing his job, quarterback Joe Flacco does. The Ravens’ first official regular season depth chart lists first-round pick Lamar Jackson as the second-string quarterback behind Flacco. It’s safe to assume that Jackson will suit up on gameday while Robert Griffin III stands on the sideline with a ball-cap and/or clipboard. On Sunday, M&T Bank Stadium (should be) filled with fans. If the Ravens come out and struggle on offense like they often have recently, the fans will start chanting for Jackson.

In order to remain Baltimore’s starting quarterback, Flacco needs to perform and perform well. If not and the Ravens go into week eight with a 2-5 record, Jackson will likely take over at quarterback. Even though Flacco’s performance in recent seasons doesn’t match up with his early career success, he’s delivered in high-pressure situations. But, in his 11-year career he’s never been pushed by a quarterback taken in the first round who’s meant to replace him.

Simply put, there’s a lot of pressure on the Ravens this year to return to the playoffs at the minimum. There’s pressure on the coach, there’s pressure on the starting quarterback, and there’s even pressure on the defense with first-year defensive coordinator Don ‘Wink’ Martindale calling the shots. This amount of pressure did not exist in prior seasons, but it’s certainly there now and it’s not going away anytime soon.

With all of this pressure on their backs, the Ravens need to come out on Sunday and beat the Buffalo Bills by a large margin. The Bills, by all accounts, project to be one of the worst teams in the NFL this season. Their roster is weak in several areas and they will be throwing out Nathan Peterman to start on Sunday over their quarterback of the future – also taken in the first round of this year’s draft – Josh Allen.

Peterman, a fifth-round pick by the Bills in 2017, started two games for Buffalo last year, playing in four total contests. He threw two touchdown passes and five interceptions. Those five interceptions all came in one half against the Las Angeles Chargers.

With Sunday being Peterman’s third career start, the Ravens cannot let him and the Bills pull off a big upset at M&T Bank Stadium. Mitchell Trubisky of the Chicago Bears did it last year while completing just eight passes. That 27-24 overtime loss in week 6 lingered over the rest of the 2017 season like a dark cloud. If the Ravens come up short on Sunday, it would set a terrible tone for the beginning of the season.

The Ravens defense should get to Peterman on Sunday. For this defense, a few turnovers and a few sacks is very doable. With Jimmy Smith out of the picture until week 5, Marlon Humphrey, Brandon Carr, and Tavon Young need to bring their A-game. Eric Weddle and Tony Jefferson need to have good days. Jefferson needs to improve his overall body of work, and having a year of experience in the Ravens’ defense will help him. Weddle led the team in interceptions last season but let up big plays in big moments. If these two can click, watch out.

As far as the pass rush goes, Terrell Suggs cannot continue to carry the unit. He can’t lead the team in sacks again this season considering he celebrates his 36th birthday on October 11. The Ravens need to limit Suggs’ snaps early on to keep him fresh for December. The Ravens’ depth at outside linebacker is deep. Guys like Matt Judon, Za’Darius Smith, and Tim Williams need to get to Peterman and force him into bad decisions.

On offense, expect a big day from Flacco and Alex Collins. The wide receiver corps is brand new and the offensive line may turn out to be the weakness of the unit, but Flacco needs to overcome the odds and make a statement. The Ravens should score early and score often. If the defense forces turnovers, that will set the offense up in favorable field position, which should translate into points. Peterman’s track record, along with playing against the Ravens defense in Baltimore, should fair well for the Ravens.

A blowout on Sunday is very possible. A low-scoring affair could transpire too, but the Ravens need to make a statement against a weak opponent. Harbaugh needs it, Flacco needs it, and Ravens fans need it. Everyone remembers the 2011 opener in Baltimore when the Ravens dismantled the Steelers 35-7. Based on how the 2017 season ended, a dominant win would restore some faith in the fanbase and boost the team’s confidence heading into a short week.

This game is very much in the Baltimore’s favor. The Ravens should beat the Bills fairly easily. If they don’t, things will certainly not get any easier over the next handful of games. After this week, the Ravens play three of their next four games on the road against all three divisional opponents with a home game against the Denver Broncos squeezed in-between in week 3.

After all that happened over the offseason, the Ravens need to win their season opener more than ever this year. Beating Buffalo, hopefully in convincing fashion, will put the week 17 nightmares behind the team and their fans, but a loss would rank among the worst defeats in franchise history as the Ravens head into a tough stretch of their schedule.

Image Credit: Ravens Wire – USA Today