Three things to watch for as the Ravens return from their bye week to welcome the Bengals

BALTIMORE — The Baltimore Ravens will return from their bye week at 4-5 and slotted into the ninth seed in the AFC playoff picture when they welcome the 5-4 Cincinnati Bengals to Baltimore on Sunday at 1:00pm at M&T Bank Stadium.

The bye week is typically a time when teams are able to get healthy, step away from football, and reset their minds for the push for the playoffs. Ideally bye weeks are uneventful but that was not the case for the Ravens.

Last Friday, CBS‘s Jason La Canfora fired off a tweet that launched a cloud of doubt over the Ravens quarterback situation:

That wasn’t it for La Canfora as he reported on Sunday that the Ravens and Head Coach John Harbaugh were heading for a “mutual parting of ways” at season’s end.

The first of these bye week stories for the Ravens has continued to play out this week as the Ravens still have not committed to who will be under center this Sunday against the Bengals. The second of these stories is something that we have expected could be possible for this Ravens team if they once again fail to make the playoffs for the fourth consecutive season.

These aren’t ideal ways for the team to be spending their bye week. The Ravens need to be focused on Sunday as they are playing for their season. A loss would put the Ravens at 4-6 and drop their playoff probability to 7.6% per ESPN. A win puts the Ravens’ playoff chances at 43%.

Here’s what to watch for ahead of Sunday’s divisional clash with the Bengals.

1) Who is under center for the Ravens?

It was the biggest story in Baltimore during the bye week and rightfully so. Many fans are ready to hand the keys to the Ravens offense over to the rookie sensation in first round pick Lamar Jackson. They have grown tired of Joe Flacco’s lack of production and are ready to see what Jackson can do. Jackson, however, missed practice on Thursday due to a stomach ailment. We will see if that impacts his chances to start on Sunday.

Others feel that Robert Griffin III gives the Ravens the best chance to win if Flacco is unable to play on Sunday. He has far more experience than Jackson but he has not played in a regular season NFL game since Jan. 1, 2017 when he was under center for the Cleveland Browns’ season-ending loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers.

The long and short of it is this. I do not expect Flacco to play this Sunday against the Bengals. Flacco has been brutal against the Bengals lifetime and I believe that the Ravens are looking to go a different way at quarterback this week. We likely won’t know for sure which quarterback is going to play until the injury reports come out Friday and the inactives come out on Sunday.

It shouldn’t matter who is under center this Sunday. The Bengals’ defense set a modern day NFL record by allowing over 500 yards in three straight games. In that stretch they played the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Kansas City Chiefs, and New Orleans Saints but 500 yards is 500 yards. The week prior against the Steelers, they surrendered 481 total yards.

The Bengals are last in total defense and pass defense. They are 31st in rush defense and points-per-game allowed. The league average is 361.58. The Bengals are giving up 454.6. Marvin Lewis has taken over the play-calling after defensive coordinator Terryl Austin was fired this week.

Who will be under center for the Ravens this Sunday? It shouldn’t matter. The offense should be able to be productive regardless of which quarterback starts. With that being said my guess is Jackson will get his first NFL start.

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The Ravens will go as far as Wink Martindale’s defense will take them this season. Image Credit: Russell Street Report

2) Can the defense regain their form?

Numbers are a funny thing. They can be used to support your point or dispel others. It has often been said that numbers never lie.

The Ravens’ defense is tied for second in total defense, allowing 305 yards-per-game. They allow just 17.8 points-per -game, ranking them second in the NFL.

Furthermore, the Ravens are fourth in third down defense, allowing opponents to convert just 35.2% of their third down opportunities on the season. They are tied for seventh with 28 sacks on the season as well. So why does a defense who ranks top ten in all of these major categories need to regain their form?

It is because these numbers lie. The Ravens’ defense has been marginal at best during the team’s three-game losing streak. Gone are the days of 11-sack games like the one the Ravens had in Tennessee. Over the past three games the Ravens have just two sacks. Opponents are converting 52.4% of their third down opportunities. They are giving up an average of 375 yards-per-game, slightly above the league average.

In other words, while the overall season numbers say otherwise, the Ravens’ defense has become middle of the pack. I said it on the podcast this week and will continue to beat this drum for the rest of the year. The Ravens will go as far as their defense is capable of taking them. They are still the more talented and capable unit in comparison with the offense.

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Eric Weddle and Terrell Suggs are among several starters who don’t project to be back next season for the Ravens. Image Credit: Baltimore Feather

The Ravens defense is facing clouds of uncertainty this coming offseason. Veterans like Eric Weddle and Terrell Suggs could be looking at retirement or being cap casualties. Linebacker C.J. Mosley will be looking to be compensated as a top five middle linebacker despite rarely looking the part. Brandon Carr and Jimmy Smith could also be cut this offseason in moves to help the Ravens save cap space. Za’Darius Smith is in a contract year and could be on his way out of town as well.

With six starters status in flux for next season, now is the time for this defense to rally the troops and put together a dominant month and a half of football to lead this Ravens team to the playoffs.

NFL: Baltimore Ravens at Cincinnati Bengals

Marvin Lewis and the Bengals have had the upper hand on John Harbaugh and the Ravens as of late. Image Credit: USA Today

3) Can the Ravens get the Cincinnati monkey off their backs?

Remember when everyone used to refer to the football team that plays in Cincinnati as the Bungles? From 1991-2004 the Bengals had 0 winning seasons. They were one of the laughing stocks of the NFL and a team that didn’t merit much consideration when talking about potential playoff teams.

Fast forward to 2018 and the Bengals have been to the playoffs five of the last seven years. Depite not winning a game in the playoffs the Bengals have been able to find the postseason more often than the Ravens in recent times. Cincinnati currently occupies the final playoff spot in the AFC this season to date as well.

The Bengals have owned the Ravens over the last ten matchups, boasting a record 8-2. The only two victories for the Ravens came in the season opener in 2017 when the Ravens blanked the Bengals 20-0 and in the first meeting in 2016 when the Ravens won 19-14. The Ravens had won five of six in the series prior to the Bengals’ recent run of dominance.

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A.J. Green projects to miss Sunday’s matchup and that will prove large. Image Credit: USA Today

One thing that bodes well for the Ravens Sunday is that Bengals Pro Bowl wide receiver and noted Raven killer A.J. Green figures to miss Sunday’s contest with a toe injury. Green dominated the team’s week two 34-23 Bengals win, tallying five catches for 69 yards and three first half touchdowns.

Joe Mixon is a threat at running back for Cincinnati and we all remember what Tyler Boyd did to the Ravens last season as he snatched their playoff hopes right out of their hands with a 49-yard fourth-and-12 touchdown catch with :44 seconds left at M&T Bank Stadium in the 2017 season finale.

The Ravens desperately need to exorcise their Cincy demons this Sunday and get their playoff chances back on track.

Predictions

Jake McDonnell– Bengals 27 Ravens 24

Nolan McGraw– Bengals 28 Ravens 19

Jay Stavros– Ravens 20 Bengals 17

Ian Schultz– Ravens 23 Bengals 13

The Ravens need to win this game. John Harbaugh needs to win this game. Whether the Ravens choose to part ways with Harbaugh at the end of the season or not is irrelevant. This team believes they can still make one final run to the playoffs. It starts Sunday against the Bengals when Harbaugh improves to 9-2 out of the bye and the Ravens right the ship.

Broadcast information:

Image Credit: USA Today

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Podcast Episode 24: End of Harbaugh era on the horizon for the Ravens?

Image Credit: Sporting News

Welcome to Episode 24 of the Charm City Bird Watch Podcast with site owner Jake McDonnell, editor Nolan McGraw, and author Ian Schultz.

At the top of Episode 24, we analyze where the 4-5 Ravens are following their third straight loss on Sunday at the hands of the Pittsburgh Steelers (5:44). We take a deep dive into the biggest moments that led to Baltimore’s loss, and look at the big picture issues that have made the Ravens a mediocre team since winning Super Bowl 47.

With the Ravens currently on their bye, Jake, Nolan, and Ian dished out their Positional Report Cards (25:28) and went over Who’s Trending (36:35) following Baltimore’s loss.

Up next, we welcome in our latest guest, Wayne Viener of Terp Talk and Capital Sports Blog (43:22). Wayne and Jake went over the fallout of the D.J. Durkin firing and predicted what’s next for the administration of Maryland athletics. Viener also went into the X’s and O’s of both the Terps’ 24-3 defeat to Michigan State and Maryland’s upcoming game in Indiana this Saturday.

After Wayne’s call-in, Nolan and Ian jump back in and share their thoughts on what’s happened at College Park over the last week (58:00). Jake also has a rant for Don’t Be A Jerk (1:02:53) stemming from a bad experience at M&T Bank Stadium this past Sunday.

To wrap up the show, we dive into our weekly numbers segment, taking a look at the best Baltimore sports athletes to wear the number 24 (1:16:09).

You can find the Charm City Bird Watch Podcast on SoundCloudiTunes, and Google Play. Please leave us a review on iTunes, we love to hear your feedback and may read it on a future episode. Thank you for listening!

The Charm City Bird Watch Podcast is brought to you by Seven Sports Bar & Grille. For a limited time only on behalf on Charm City Bird Watch, you can receive a 10% discount off any entree dish when you tell your server or bartender the promo code ‘Charm City.’

Three things we learned from the Ravens’ 23-16 loss to the Steelers

BALTIMORE — On Sunday the Baltimore Ravens dropped their third straight game, falling to 4-5 with a 23-16 defeat at the hands of the Pittsburgh Steelers at M&T Bank Stadium.

Despite leaving the month of September with a 3-1 record, the Ravens have lost four of their last five and enter their bye week one game under .500. That’s good for third place in the AFC North.

The Ravens have a lot of soul-searching to do over their week off. The entire franchise is under a lot of pressure to break the three-year streak of playoff-less football. Nine weeks into the 2018 season, a lot of the problems that have plagued previous teams continue to pop up. There’s still a lack of consistent play-makers, the defense still can’t find that big stop, and some of the play-calling leaves you scratching your head.

If the Ravens can’t go at least 5-1 over their final six games and make up for this 1-4 skid, changes will likely be made. Three of those final seven games will be contested against others teams in the AFC Playoff picture -Bengals, Chiefs, Chargers – and teams at the bottom of the barrel – Raiders, Buccaneers, Browns. The Falcons are the outlier. With the Steelers winning four straight and the Ravens holding a 1-3 divisional record, a Wild Card berth is much more attainable than a home playoff game.

Enough about the big picture for now, here’s three things we learned about the Ravens in another concerning performance that ended with the Steelers tying the season series between Pittsburgh and Baltimore.


1. For both the offense and defense, strengths have turned into weaknesses

Up until an Alex Collins goal-line fumble in the second quarter of the Ravens’ 26-14 win over the Steelers on Sept. 30, the Ravens offense scored touchdowns in all 13 of their trips to the red-zone dating back to the beginning of the season. Up until a two-yard run from Alvin Kamara in the fourth quarter against the Saints in week seven, the Ravens defense had not allowed a single touchdown in the second half.

Since that Collins fumble, the Ravens’ offense has gone 9-for-18 in the red zone. In the past three games, all losses, the Ravens defense has allowed four second half touchdowns in eight attempts by opponents. That’s certainly not back-breaking, but opponents scoring touchdowns in the second half has put more pressure on the Ravens’ offense. That wasn’t the case in the first month of the season. With the offense still lacking a game-changing play-maker, all of the weight goes directly on the shoulders of Joe Flacco, who’s again proving that he needs more than a scrap heap of aging free agent wide receivers to make magic late in games.

There are other problems on both sides of the football. The Ravens rank 31st in the NFL with 3.6 yards-per-rush, only ahead of the Arizona Cardinals’ 3.4. The Ravens’ defense is tied for 24th in the NFL with seven takeaways. They’re averaging 0.8 turnovers-per-game, down from their 2.1 takeaways-per-game last season. In addition, the Ravens have accumulated 28 sacks this season. 25 of those sacks came against the Titans (11), Bills (6), Browns (5) and Broncos (3). The Ravens finished with one sack against the Steelers twice and the Saints once, with no sacks against Cincinnati and Carolina.

Simply put, there’s multiple issues impacting both sides of the football right now for the Ravens. Areas of the game where the Ravens were good at early in the season have translated into struggles. The offense has not been able to run the football all season. The pass rush has exploded at times, but has been ineffective more often than not. Turnovers have been hard to come by after the defense led the NFL in takeaways last season.

If the Ravens can turn a few of these weaknesses back into strengths, improvement could be seen in upcoming games. If the same trends continue, losses will pile up against a tough schedule, especially on the road.


2. Joe Flacco can’t miss wide open targets in the red-zone

Let’s focus in on one of the Ravens offense’s botched red-zone opportunities. In the first quarter during Baltimore’s first trip inside the Pittsburgh 20-yard line, Flacco threw an incomplete pass to Mark Andrews on 1st-and-10, and then Collins rushed for five yards. On third down, Flacco overthrew John Brown by a few feet in the back of the end-zone. The Ravens settled for a 23-yard Justin Tucker field goal to take a 3-0 lead before the Steelers scored a touchdown on their ensuing possession.

Before the ball was snapped on third down, Lamar Jackson split out wide before running left-to-right across the entire formation. As Jackson’s feet crossed the 10-yard marker, Flacco took the snap and dropped back before unloading the ball into Brown’s direction.

For the entire duration of the play, Jackson was wide open, and Flacco never once looked his direction. After the game, Flacco explained his decision to go to Brown.

In addition, Jackson said that the play was not designed for him, Flacco should not be blamed for it, and that he was the last resort on the play.

It’s great that the Ravens are not blaming everyone, but the fact is that the Ravens lost by a touchdown, and throwing to Jackson would have given them a 7-0 lead rather than a 3-0 lead. The defense probably still gives up the Pittsburgh touchdown on the following drive, but the tone of a tied game at the end of the first quarter sounds much better than the Ravens trailing 7-3.

By the way, after the Steelers scored their first touchdown, the Ravens went five plays on their next possession and punted. The Steelers got the ball back and found the end-zone again.

If Flacco wants to keep his job in Baltimore, he better start hitting wide open targets in the end-zone. It doesn’t matter if Jackson is listed as a quarterback on the depth chart, and it also doesn’t matter if he was the fifth option on the play. A quarterback is supposed to look around the entire field and throw to who’s the most separated from coverage. In this instance, it was Jackson, and Flacco didn’t go to him.

The Ravens are paying Flacco over $20 million this season to play quarterback. If he can’t throw to the most open receiver in the end-zone during a must-win divisional game at home, then the Ravens won’t keep writing his checks.


3. Orlando Brown Jr. should start at right tackle after the bye week

Time to focus on the good.

With James Hurst currently nursing a back injury, Orlando Brown Jr. has started at right tackle over the last three games. The sample size is small, but Brown Jr. looks just as impressive as he did in August when he played almost every single snap of the Ravens’ five-game preseason slate.

Not only is he taking an advantage of this opportunity, he’s doing an exceptional job of protecting his quarterbacks.

When Hurst returns, the Ravens should simply keep Brown Jr. at right tackle and slide Hurst over to left guard, where he started 16 games for the Ravens last season. If Hurst needs a week or two to adjust back to his old position, the Ravens could keep Alex Lewis and his mullet at left guard until Hurst is ready. That would also give Hurst’s back some extra time to fully heal.

With Hurst in, Matt Skura likely stays at center while Lewis serves as the sixth offensive lineman. Skura’s play at center hasn’t been anything great, but Lewis can’t play center and Hurst played better at left guard last season than Lewis has this season. Lewis could fill in at either guard or tackle position, especially if Ronnie Stanley continues to struggle with injuries.

Using Hurst as the sixth man is another option, but the Ravens just paid him in the spring and he played well on an offense that ranked 11th in rushing yards-per-game in 2017. If Hurst returns to left guard, perhaps the running game improves?

Both Brown and Hurst have played well enough this season to keep starting games. Lewis and Skura have struggled, so it will be interesting to see what the coaching staff decides to do when Hurst returns. No matter what, they can’t justify sitting Brown Jr. after his performances over the last three weeks.


Quick hits:

READ: Why are the Ravens so dang mediocre? 

Image Credit: PennLive