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Ravens Receive Four Compensatory Picks

March 24, 2014 in News, NFL Draft

The Baltimore Ravens have received four compensatory draft picks today for losses sustained in free agency last year.

These four picks come in the third (No. 99 overall), fourth (Nos. 134 and 138) and fifth round (No. 175). The maximum number of compensatory picks that a team can receive is four. The addition of these four picks––which can't be traded––push the Ravens total pick count in the upcoming draft to eight.

Joe Flacco

Courtesy of ICON SMI

Ever since the NFL has implemented the compensatory pick system in 1994––two years before the Ravens were established in 1996––the Ravens have led the league in total compensatory picks awarded with 41. The next closest are the Green Bay Packers and Dallas Cowboys who each have received 33.

General manager Ozzie Newsome loves compensatory picks as they are "free" draft picks. This shows in the numbers above.

Teams are awarded compensatory picks for losing more or better free agents than they signed during the free agent period. Players cut by teams don't count in this equation and there is a cut-off date for signings to have an impact on the compensatory draft pick formula.

Last offseason the Ravens lost outside linebacker Paul Kruger (Cleveland Browns), inside linebacker Dannell Ellerbe (Miami Dolphins), safety Ed Reed (Houston Texans) and cornerback Cary Williams (Philadelphia Eagles) in free agency.

According to the formula, the Ravens signed zero free agents that effected compensatory picks. The outside linebacker Elvis Dumervil, safety Michael Huff and defensive end Marcus Spears were all cut by their prior teams. Inside linebacker Daryl Smith was signed after the deadline for signings to impact compensatory picks.

It comes as no surprise that the Ravens received four compensatory draft picks as this was expected. The actual picks that the Ravens received represented the best case scenario for the team as it was thought they would receive two fourths, one fifth and one sixth by many people––including me.

Ravens Free Agency Recap: Week 1 Ends with "A" Grade

March 19, 2014 in Baltimore Ravens, Free Agency

For Baltimore Ravens General Manager Ozzie Newsome and the rest of Ravens front office, the 2014 off season is the polar opposite of what their 2013 off season campaign produced. Having just beaten the San Francisco 49ers, 34-31, in Super Bowl XLVII, the Ravens watched, as no less than nine contributing starters from that team left via free agency, trade or was cut by the team. Two key contributors, Ray Lewis and Matt Birk retired. All of the losses would add up to a very different looking team than the one that had just captured the franchises second Lombardi Trophy in franchise history. images (20)

The Ravens were forced to re-sign QB Joe Flacco, who parlayed a remarkable championship run into a then NFL record $120.6 million dollar contract. Not able to reach a deal the prior off season, Flacco entered the final year of his rookie deal literally having to stay healthy and play for his next big pay day—he hit the jackpot. Because of Flacco’s deal, the Ravens chances of being able to bring back some of those key players from the 2013 squad became an impossible feat. WR Anquan Boldin refused to restructure his contract and was dealt the team he had a very big part in beating in the Super Bowl. Linebacker Dannell Ellerbe, the heir apparent to Ray Lewis and coming off a stellar playoff run himself, took his talents to South Beach and signed with the Dolphins when the Ravens could not enter the same ballpark at the negotiating table.

However, Newsome refused to throw money away on players that contributed to a Super Bowl title but were not exactly stars—but because they were coming off a championship, those players, as Flacco did in Baltimore and Ellerbe in Miami, cashed in elsewhere with other NFL teams. We see it every off season. Teams overpay for the right to bring in a player that appeared more valuable to their team than they actually were during a title run. Newsome did not throw away money at players like Paul Kruger and for that, he was able to bring in other free agents for less money. He managed to sign players such as Elvis Dumervil, Darryl Smith, and Chris Canty and although they did not finish the year, Michael Huff and Marcus Spears were considered value signings at positions of need when they were originally signed.

With the retirement of Lewis (37) and Birk (36), the trading of Boldin (32) and allowing Ed Reed (34) to sign elsewhere, the Ravens were able to get younger, which was another goal of Newsome and Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti. The off season value signings failed to produce a winner on the field, as the Ravens battled injuries, a poor rushing attack and bad offensive line and became the second straight Super Bowl champion to miss the playoffs, finishing with an 8-8 record.

With Boldin gone and one of those major injuries to his favorite target TE Dennis Pitta, Joe Flacco threw as many interceptions (22) last season as he did in the previous two seasons (12 & 10) combined. He produced only 19 touchdown passes and never did find the long ball in an offense that produced so many big plays for the team the year before. The Ravens really seemed to miss the leadership of Ray Lewis and from Head Coach John Harbaugh all the way down, the Super Bowl champs never seemed to be on the same page. The Ravens still managed to remain in the playoff hunt, as the AFC’s sixth seed, up until 4:00 p.m. on the last Sunday of the regular season but the goal was clear, after five straight playoff appearances and  Super Bowl title, missing the playoffs wasn’t going to be tolerated or accepted in the organization. It was understood that making the playoffs had to the norm and missing the exception to the rule for this franchise.

Entering this offseason the plan was simple —fix what ailed the team in 2013. During the final press conference of the 2013 season, in what team officials call “The State of  the Ravens,  every important member of the Ravens organization off the field attended and answers questions about what went wrong in 2013. Promises were made and lines, albeit soft one, drawn in the sand.

Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti summed up the Ravens approach best by saying, “I have to be patient to let people fail, but I don't have to be patient enough to let people repeat failure. I'll be more apt to get my way next year if their solutions don't change the problems. That's fair, that's where I am as owner”.

Bisciotti would go on to say, "They know they've failed, they know they need to change, and to make improvements. If it's not the way I think it should be and then it fails again, then obviously it comes down to owner-head coach relationship."  Bisciotti knows the No. 1 priority this offseason was to build the offense. Head coach John Harbaugh has usually had offenses that finished in the middle of the rankings, but the Ravens were No. 29 last season. They averaged only 83 rushing yards per game.

With the goal clear, the Ravens have entered this off season to this point having done the exact opposite of what occurred last year. Instead of watching their free agents sign elsewhere, the Ravens locked their biggest ones up early in the process and stayed patient with the remaining ones, re-signing them at deals considered good values.

It began in mid-February when the Ravens and LB Terrell Suggs agreed on a new contract. The 31-year-old Suggs was entering the last year of a long-term contract that would have put his cap number at $12.4 million next season, but the new deal lowered that number to $7.8 million, which gave the Ravens much needed salary cap space. GM Ozzie Newsome hinted during the January state of the Ravens press conference that the Ravens would look to restructure his contract after he failed to produce much during the second half of last season. Suggs had nine sacks through the first eight games of the 2013 season. He finished with 10 sacks.

That deal allowed the Ravens to get started on contract talks with TE Dennis Pitta and 11 days before Joe Flacco’s favorite was set to hit the FA market, he agreed to a five-year $32 million deal, which makes him one of the top 10 paid tight ends in the league in terms of annual average salary.

The biggest priority this off season was to make sure the Ravens did not lose both offensive tackles. Eugene Monroe and Michael Oher were set to become free agents when the market opened and all signs pointed to losing the pair just days before the March 11 4:00 p.m. deadline. Baltimore was willing to part with Oher but Monroe was a different story. Acquired for a fourth round draft pick in October from the Jacksonville Jaguars, Monroe was listed as high as the No.3 free agent this off season on NFL.com. The two sides appeared to be far away as the deadline approached but as he always seems to do, Ozzie Newsome got his guy and at his price.

The Ravens agreed to terms with Monroe, whom the Ravens did not franchise and would have been forced to pay $11 million if they had. Instead, Newsome signed one of the better tackles in the game to a five-year $37.5 million deal, which has turned to be not just one of the best values in free agency for the Ravens but one of the best in all of free agency. Newsome and the Ravens got a little bit lucky in signing Monroe as quickly as they did. The market seemed to dry up a bit for Monroe when several other highly sought after tackles took advantage of one of the NFL’s newer policies in that players are free to negotiate with teams two days prior to the actual start of free agency. Once 4:00 p.m. Tuesday rolled around, Jared Veldheer and Branden Albert were signing on the dotted line with Arizona and Miami respectively.

The Raiders chose to replace Veldheer with the Rams Roger Saffold but after failing his physical, owner Mark Davis killed the deal sending Saffold back to the Rams. Luckily, for the Ravens, Monroe had already agreed to terms. Oakland entered the free agency period with nearly $66 million in salary cap room and would have offered him a deal likely for what Albert got from Miami. The Dolphins gave the former Cardinal Tackle nearly nine million more than Monroe and before he failed the physical, Saffold’s deal in Oakland would have paid him five million more than Monroe and Saffold isn’t nearly the tackle Monroe is.  While they say it’s better to be lucky than good—the saying timing is everything applies just as well in this case for the Ravens and when it comes to issues such as this—it always seems to.

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Dick Cass, John Harbaugh, Ozzie Newsome and Steve Bisciotti

Baltimore also re-signed WR / KR Jacoby Jones and inside linebacker Darryl Smith—both key contributors to last year’s squad and both salary cap friendly value based deals. Jones was considered a luxury as the primary kick returner and likely third or fourth wide receiver but after visiting the NY Giants, signed for a maximum value of $14 million if he hits all of his incentive clauses, sources said. He's guaranteed $4.5 million and he has a $2 million incentive clause based on catches.

Last Friday the Ravens re-signed ILB Darryl Smith, who started every game at middle linebacker last year and led the Ravens in tackles. His deal was for four years and could be worth up to $16.1 million.  Losing Smith would have been costly. Starting all 16 games in the same position that Ray Lewis occupied for the Ravens for the previous 17 seasons, Smith finished first on the team in tackles (125), third in sacks (five), tied for second in interceptions (three), second in passes defended (19) and tied for first in forced fumbles (two). Even more was the value in the deal. Former Browns LB D'Qwell Jackson signed for four years and $22 million with Indy while Karlos Dansby replaced Jackson in Cleveland by inking a four-year, $24 million with Cleveland. Both more than Smith. ProFootballFocus.com ranked Smith 16th among all inside linebackers in 2013, while Dansby was fifth and Jackson 42nd.

The Ravens did not attempt to re-sign CB Corey Graham (Bills) WR Tandon Doss (Jaguars), OT Michael Oher (Titans), ILB Jameel McClain (Giants) and DE / DT Arthur Jones, who hit the jackpot with his old defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano in Indianapolis. They did bring back Safety Jeromy Miles as well as ILB Albert McClellan.

The Ravens went outside the organization last Friday afternoon for the first time in free agency when they signed former Carolina Panthers WR Steve Smith. The move was puzzling in that back in 2011, the Ravens cut a player similar to Smith in Derrick Mason and is Smith really the type of receiver the Ravens need? He is not really the Anquan Boldin type and said so himself. Smith’s best days are well behind him, as he turns 35 in May. However, last season in Carolina, he still managed to haul in 64 passes for 765 yards and 4 TD’s. His receptions and yards would have placed him second on the Ravens in 2012 behind Torrey Smith, which is where Steve Smith will play.

In 2012, No.89 caught 73 passes for 1,174 yards and four scores. In 2011, he logged 79 catches for 1,394 yards and seven touchdowns, earning his fifth Pro Bowl selection. Smith passion for the game will be good in a mundane Ravens huddle. He is not likely to allow Flacco off the hook so easy when he isn’t playing at his best, which is similar to how Anquan Boldin handled Joe Cool.

To Smith’s credit, he knows what his role will be and will likely do it well. He has acknowledged that he is no longer a No. 1 receiver at this stage, and he admitted that one of the draws to signing with the Ravens was that they have several established players on offense – he specifically mentioned Torrey Smith, Jacoby Jones and Ray Rice – so there is not as much pressure on him. Smith also spoke highly about new OC Gary Kubiak’s offense with the Houston Texans.  He said he saw himself not in the role of perennial Pro Bowl wide receiver Andre Johnson, but in the role of Kevin Walter, who never caught more than 65 passes in a season.

Smith got a three-year contract with the Ravens,  worth $11.5 million with a $3.5 million signing bonus  and only time will tell if he’s a good fit for the Ravens offense, and if what he has to offer on the field and in the locker room is what the Ravens need. He could be a nice complementary piece and should help quarterback Joe Flacco. But the success of the Ravens’ passing game in 2014 will still depend on Flacco improving his accuracy and decision-making and the offense line doing a better job of protecting him. The other issue is how fast Flacco and Smith make a connection. Flacco has a tendency to avoid throwing to new receivers in the Ravens system and tends to stick to his “favorites”. Smith won’t tolerate that if he’s open and he won’t keep quiet about it. He also said one of the reasons he elected to sign with Baltimore was because HC John Harbaugh said he wanted him to be himself.  That also seems opposite of what the Ravens have wanted over the last few off seasons. Harbaugh seemed very content to allow the more vocal players—players with Steve Smith’s type of personality to sign elsewhere or the Ravens cut them.

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Dennis Pitta..Photo credit Baltimore Ravens

Derrick Mason, Bernard Pollard, Ed Reed and Anquan Boldin were all jettisoned. But it is possible that Harbaugh realizes leadership can be too quiet at times and rattling a few cages by employing a few alpha males may not be such a bad idea after all.  Re-signing Jacoby Jones and signing Steve Smith are a good indication of that. If for no other reason, the Smith signing may wake up a few players.

The Ravens front office is steadfast in its basic philosophy and has showed so far this offseason why they are one of the top front offices in all of sports. They refuse to overpay players who are past their prime, as they showed in giving Terrell Suggs a new contract. Suggs would surely have been cut had he not agreed to a lesser number in 2014. The Ravens also stay patient—very patient in free agency.

That was also on full display with players such as Darryl Smith who was allowed to watch, as two other players set the market for his position. They also know when to pounce as they did with Steve Smith. As soon as the Panthers cut the 13-year veteran, the Ravens scheduled his visit and never let him leave town without a deal. Smith had options, plenty of them. The Chargers had a deal on the table for him and he was on the phone with Patriots HC Bill Belichick, as he prepared to board a plane but the weather last Friday along the east coast delayed his visit until Monday to New England. That visit was obviously not necessary, as Smith signed that day with the Ravens.

The Ravens also pounced without overpaying, as they demonstrated with Dennis Pitta and Eugene Monroe. Signing Pitta 11 days before the open of free agency and getting Monroe on day one at a great value has been the highlight of the free agency period for them.

They also showed their versatility in thinking. There is a lot of irony in re-signing many of your own players following a season when you finished .500 and missed the playoffs, as opposed to allowing seven available starters to leave in any fashion from a Super Bowl winning team. This versatility and adaptability is also, what makes The Wizard of Oz and company so special. Nate Davis of the USA Today handed out first free agency week grades and the Ravens are one of just three teams to receive an A grade thus far.

The Ravens still have plenty of work to do. They have roughly $12.3 million in cap space to use, this according to spotrac.com. GM Ozzie Newsome said during the State of the Ravens press conference that they would get the receiver that seemed to be missing last season. It is hard to imagine Steve Smith is that guy but as I noted earlier—his numbers would have been second best on the team last season.

Aside from the big-bodied receiver the Ravens still need, they must address the Tight end position and the offensive line at center and right tackle. On defense, Baltimore needs help at safety and could use another defensive tackle. Linebacker and cornerback could also use some depth.

On the offensive line, the Ravens will probably wait until after the draft to fill the guard or tackle position if they choose the free agency route. Center could be a different story. Cleveland's Alex Mack got the transition tag, and Evan Dietrich-Smith (the top unrestricted free-agent center) signed with the Buccaneers. This leaves the New York Giants' David Baas, Cincinnati's Kyle Cook and New Orleans' Brian de la Puente as the top options.

At tight end, the Ravens have Dennis Pitta and two practice squad players, Matt Furstenburg and Nathan Overbay. Tight end and safety are the Ravens' thinnest group, in terms of experience. There had been talk of the Ravens showing interest in Owen Daniels but the Ravens may elect to draft one or sign a cheaper option. Carolina's Ben Hartsock, Seattle's Kellen Davis and the New York Giants' Bear Pascoe are still available if the Ravens decide they want a blocking option to compliment Pitta.

Steve Smith

Courtesy of ICON SMI

At safety, the Ravens want someone whose strength is coverage. This would complement strong safety Matt Elam. But the Ravens elected to not throw their hat in the ring as many of the best safeties were signed on the first day of free agency. Their remaining options are Miami's Chris Clemons, Atlanta's Thomas DeCoud and Denver's Champ Bailey. Bailey is a 12-time Pro Bowl cornerback who is open to switching to safety. There are also rumors tying Ryan Clark to the Ravens—-yes that Ryan Clark of the Steelers—the same Ryan Clark who said the Ravens would never win a Super Bowl with Joe Flacco at quarterback. The Ravens continue to monitor safety James Ihedigbo.

Ihedigbo had a career-high 101 tackles and three interceptions last season while starting every game for the Ravens. The team has not ruled out bringing back Ihedigbo, who visited the Detroit Lions last week and left without a deal.

Newsome will continue to add to a roster that less than two years removed from its Super Bowl win, is vastly different. There are still the familiar faces of Joe Flacco, Haloti Ngata and Terrell Suggs but the Ravens' 2014 team has just 22 of the 46 players who dressed for SB 47.  If history tells us anything it’s that Ozzie Newsome will fill the Ravens positions of need with the best available players and he will do it at the price the Ravens want to pay.

Suggs Signs Contract Extension

February 17, 2014 in Free Agency, News

Today, the Baltimore Ravens and outside linebacker Terrell Suggs agreed to a contract extension that will likely make him a Raven for life.

It was announced last night that the 31-year old Suggs and the Ravens had agreed to terms on a new contract and today they made it official at a noon Eastern time press conference.

A four-year extension on top of this season (so really a five-year deal), the total value of the contract is around $30 million. There is $16 million in guaranteed money and an $11 million signing bonus. The other $5 million in guaranteed money comes from the base salaries for this season ($1 million) and next season ($4 million). For this season, his cap hit is reduced from $12.4 million to $7.8 million which creates $4.6 million in cap space for the Ravens. In terms of actual money that he makes this season, he receives an increase as he will earn $12.4 million.

Terrell Suggs

Courtesy of ICON SMI

Entering the final year of his six-year $62.5 million deal, he was set to count as $12.4 million against the salary cap. This was the third-highest cap number on the team behind defensive tackle Haloti Ngata and quarterback Joe Flacco. Cutting or trading Suggs would have saved the Ravens $7.8 million in much needed cap space. Due to this high savings number––the largest on the team––it was widely reported that the Ravens would either cut him or renegotiate his contract to create a lower cap hit.

Drafted by the Ravens with the 10th pick in the 2003 NFL Draft, he has been with the Ravens his entire career and now seems set to finish his career in Baltimore.

Despite starting only one game as a rookie, he recorded 12 sacks (a Ravens' rookie record) and earned the Defensive Rookie of the Year Award.

An electrifying pass rusher, he has five seasons with over 10 sacks (2003, 2004, 2010, 2011 and 2013).

In the 2011 season, he performed at his best setting career-highs in sacks (14.0) and forced fumbles (7). He all tied a career-high with two interceptions. With this dominant performance, he was named the NFL Defensive Player of the Year, making him the third Ravens' defender to earn with award along with linebacker Ray Lewis (2000 and 2003) and safety Ed Reed (2004).

The following season––2012––wasn't so kind to Suggs as he tore his Achilles' tendon during the offseason. A significant injury that causes many players to miss entire seasons, Suggs returned in late October about five and a half months after surgery. In his first game back, he recorded four tackles and one sack against the Houston Texans.

Late in the season though, he tore his biceps muscle against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Missing only one game, he came back and played in the final two regular season games.

As the Ravens started their postseason run to Super Bowl XLVII, he was clearly at less than 100 percent, but that didn't stop him from recording 10 tackles and two sacks against the Denver Broncos in the Divisional Round of the playoffs. This two-sack performance helped the Ravens' upset the heavily favored Broncos.

In Super Bowl XLVII against the San Francisco 49ers, he had two tackles in the Ravens 34-31 victory.

Despite being injured for most of the season, he battled his way through it, and his reward was a Super Bowl ring.

This season, he entered the season in the best shape of his life and it showed early in the season. Through the first eight games of the season, he had nine sacks and seemed on pace to be named defensive player of the year again. However, over the second half of the season, his performance faded as he had only one sack over the last eight games of the season. He also had only 20 of his 80 tackles during the final eight games.

Not only is he a good pass rusher, he is also stout against the run. According to Pro Football Focus, he was the best run defending 3-4 outside linebacker this season. The worst he has finished as a run defender since they started grading in 2008 was 13th during his injury riddled 2012 season. Take that season away, and the worst he has finished is third.

The impact of this deal on the Ravens is massive. By reducing his cap number this sea on by $4.6 million, they free up much needed cap room. Left tackle Eugene Monroe and tight end Dennis Pitta are two key free agents that the Ravens had who are set to hit the open market. This $4.6 million can now be used to help sign either of them. It is enough money to take up the entire 2014 cap hit of one of these two.

Before, the Ravens could have easily been outbid for one of these two, but now with Suggs' new contract, they have a much higher likelihood of being able to re-sign both of them.

For Suggs, this deal makes sense as well because he now has a contract through the 2018 season. At the end of this season, he will be 36-years old and his football future will likely be in question. This deal lets him stay in Baltimore for what is likely to be the rest of his career and gives him more money this season.

Overall, this deal is a win-win. Both sides get what they wanted as the Ravens receive cap room this season and lock up one of their veteran leaders for a few more years. Suggs gets the security of a new contract, earns more money this season and gives him the opportunity to do something he saw Lewis do just one season ago––retire as a Baltimore Raven.

Baltimore Ravens Season Awards

December 31, 2013 in News

With the Baltimore Ravens season now over after losing to the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday, it is time to hand out awards for the season.

Most Valuable Player

Kicker Justin Tucker
Having a kicker as the most valuable player for a team sounds strange, but that is the 2013 Baltimore Ravens. Entering the season, it looked like quarterback Joe Flacco would be the most valuable player, but he, like the entire offense, underperformed which thrust Tucker into the spotlight.

Justin Tucker

Courtesy of ICON SMI

The spotlight was never brighter than in week 15 against the Detroit Lions on Monday Night Football. Due to offensive struggles, he kicked six field goals (29, 24, 32, 49, 53 and 61 yards) which was all of the Ravens points in their 18-16 victory. This was the first time in NFL history that a kicker make field goals in the 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s and 60s in the same game. His 61-yard field goal came with 0:38 seconds left in the game and he made it by inches. Six field goals in one game and a 61-yard field goal were both franchise records. Earlier in the season he made five field goals against the Pittsburgh Steelers (a 22-20 win) and tied the record. Two other franchise records that he set this season were most field goals made in a season (38) and most points in a season (140).

A record that he came close to breaking this season was the consecutive field goals streak. He got to 33 in a row before missing in week 16. The record is 36 which was set by Matt Stover.

For the season, Tucker went 38-of-41 on field goals including seven over 50 yards. His only misses were from 37, 44 and 50 yards. He was also a perfect 26-of-26 on extra points. Simply put, without his excellent kicking — which earned him a Pro Bowl spot — the Ravens wouldn't be 8-8 as he carried the team in certain games, and that is what a most valuable player is supposed to do.

Offensive Player of the Year

Wide Receiver Torrey Smith
With an offense that ranked fourth-worst in total yards this season, there aren't many options to choose for this award, but I settled on Smith.

Forced into the number one receiver spot in the offseason due to the trade of Anquan Boldin, Smith was given more responsibilities in the offense and he rewarded the Ravens. When tight end Dennis Pitta went down with a dislocated and fractured hip in training camp, Smith became the only target that Flacco had spent significant time with and this showed throughout the season as Smith's receiving stats where well above all other Ravens.

Setting career-highs in four different categories (catches, targets, yards and first downs), he had the best season of his three-year career with 65 catches for 1,128 yards with four touchdowns and 48 first downs on 138 targets. While a wasn't able to set the franchise record for receiving yards (1,201), he did come close and with his talent, he is sure to challenge this record in the coming seasons. He came a long way this season as he became a much more developed and balanced receiver compared to last season.

Defensive Player of the Year

Middle Linebacker Daryl Smith
Charged with the almost impossible task of replacing the legendary Ray Lewis in the middle of the Ravens' defense, Smith did everything that he was asked to do and exceeded expectations.

Signed to a one-year deal in free agency in June — well after all of the major signing that occurs in March — the Ravens picked him up for cheap with hopes that he could lead the defense and he did exactly that.  He recorded 123 tackles, five sacks, two forced fumbles, three interceptions, 19 passes defended and he returned one of his interceptions for a touchdown. A 10-year veteran, he set career-highs in tackles, sacks, interceptions, passes defended and his touchdown was the first of his career. The 19 passes defended was something that Lewis was never able to do as the most he ever mustered was 13 and Smith set a franchise record for linebackers with these 19.

Along with great performance, he provided the defense with veteran leadership — something it was lacking after the departures of Lewis and safety Ed Reed. Smith commanded the Ravens' defense with great acumen and it showed as the Ravens' defense ranked 12th in total defense and points per game.

Special Teams Player of the Year (not named Justin Tucker)

Kick/Punt Returner Jacoby Jones
The best special teams player for the Ravens this season was Tucker, but I disqualified him because I gave him the MVP and he was head and shoulders above the rest. With that being said, this award goes to Jones for his returning ability.

Last season, this ability was on full display as he scored three times on kickoffs (including one in the Super Bowl) and scored once on a punt return). This year he was slowed down by a knee injury that he suffered in week one. This knocked him out for four games and he didn't seem to be fully recovered for a few weeks after that. Once he was though, he was back to his explosive self. He returned 19 punts for 237 yards (12.5 yard average) and a long of 37 yards. On kickoffs he had 892 yards on 31 returns (28.8 average, fourth-best in the NFL) with one touchdown and a long of 77 yards. He always saved his best returns for the most important times and this was best shown from his lone touchdown of the season which gave the Ravens a 22-19 lead with 1:16 left in the game against the Minnesota Vikings. He came close to another touchdown (this time against he Pittsburgh Steelers), but Steelers' head coach Mike Tomlin stepped onto the field and this caused Jones to alter course slightly and he was caught from behind. While he very well could have been caught anyways, this play stands out from his season due to the controversy surrounding it.

Looking at his stats, he had a down year, but his season last year was shear dominance from a returner and is very tough to match. Despite an injury, he was able to have another successful season returning kicks and punts for the Ravens. His good returns set up numerous scoring drives for the Ravens all season long.

Offensive Rookie of the Year

Wide Receiver Marlon Brown
In the 2013 NFL Draft, the Ravens ended up selecting 10 players and only four of them played offense: fullback Kyle Juszczyk (fourth round), offensive tackle Ricky Wagner (fifth round), center Ryan Jensen (sixth round) and wide receiver Aaron Mellette (seventh round). Juszczyk saw few offensive snaps, Wagner played part of the first game of the season due to an injury and saw a couple of snaps each game as a sixth offensive lineman, Jensen broke his foot and never saw game action when he returned and Mellette was placed on injured reserve before the regular season started. With that being said, the Ravens did get production from Brown, an undrafted free agent.

Marlon Brown

Courtesy of ICON SMI

Due to a torn ACL last November which ended his senior season at the University of Georgia, he went undrafted. He then was going to sign with the Houston Texans, but they wanted to wait a little bit due to his knee injury, so he instead signed with the Ravens who would take him right away. This turned out to be great for the Ravens as he ended up being second on the team in the major receiving categories and actually led the team in receiving touchdowns. He had 49 catches for 524 yards with seven touchdowns (tied for a Ravens' rookie record with Torrey Smith) and 29 first downs on 82 targets in 14 games. Brown's size (6'4") proved to be an excellent asset as he has developed into a great red zone target over the course of the season. This was showcased against the Vikings as he caught a touchdown pass in the back of the end zone with four second left in the game.

While the Ravens' receiving corps will likely see an overhaul this offseason, they have a keeper in Brown who did most of his damage out of the slot this season. He may have been undrafted, but that didn't stop him from contributing to the Ravens this season, and without him stepping up, the Ravens passing game would have struggled even more — and that is hard to imagine.

Defensive Rookie of the Year

Safety Matt Elam
Last on the list of awards is the Defensive Rookie of the Year, and this goes to the Ravens' first-round pick out of the University of Florida who started 15 games and played in all 16.

Entering the season-opener in Denver, Elam was a backup safety, but poor performance from free safety Michael Huff (who was actually cut a few weeks later) sent Elam into the game in the fourth quarter and gave him the job for the rest of the season. For the season, he recorded 77 tackles, two forced fumbles, one interception and three passes defended. His interception clinched the Ravens' game against the Lions as it came with less than a minute left in the game. A natural strong safety, he was more comfortable in run defense and his pass coverage struggled at times as he was beaten bad a few times. He was playing free safety as the Ravens played their two best safeties and Elam was the best free safety on the roster despite being better at strong safety where James Ihedigbo played. Elam was expected to start at strong safety, but Huff's bad play and Ihedigbo's surprisingly good performance put Elam at free safety.

While he needs to work on his pass coverage, he was clearly the best rookie on the defensive side of the ball for the Ravens this season. With Ihedigbo being a free agent, Elam could move over to strong safety next season if Ihedigbo isn't retained.

Defense Leads Ravens To Victory

November 25, 2013 in Observations

Led by a dominant defensive performance, the Baltimore Ravens beat the New York Jets 19-3. The result pushes both teams to a 5-6 record.

On a day where it was so windy that the Ravens' pre-game introductions were done without the usual pyrotechnics, the Ravens' defense allowed 220 yards, forced one fumbles, intercepted two passes and had three sacks while giving up only three points — the fewest points allowed by the Ravens since 2009.

The three sacks gave the Ravens 22-consecutive games with at least one sack which ties a franchise record. Also, they have at least two sacks in 19-straight games which ties the Philadelphia Eagles (2003-2004) for the longest such streak since 1990.

At halftime, former Ravens' offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden was presented with his Hall of Fame ring. He is the only Raven in the Hall of Fame.

This win gives the Ravens eight straight wins against the New York Jets and an 8-1 all-time record against them.

Joe Flacco
The aforementioned windy conditions made it hard to pass the ball yesterday, but Flacco was able to go 17-of-26 for 273 yards for one touchdown and one interception.

Starting with the good, he threw two perfect deep passes — one to Torrey Smith and the other to Jacoby Jones. Both passes hit the receiver in stride as he ran a deep route. On the one to Jones, Flacco was able to out throw the double coverage (including Ed Reed) as Jones beat the coverage deep and was able to score.

Earlier in the game, Flacco threw a pass to Jones in the end zone and it looked like he was going to hold on. However, Reed came over and was able to knock the ball out.

Joe Flacco

Courtesy of ICON SMI

On to the bad, Flacco threw one interception, but he also had two more dropped. On his actual interception, there was a miscommunication according to head coach John Harbaugh. Smith ran a curl route as the outside receiver and Marlon Brown started to run an out route, but stopped after making his cut to the outside. Flacco threw the pass between the two and cornerback Antonio Cromartie intercepted it for the Jets.

The first dropped interception came on third and 20 on the Ravens' first drive of the game. Flacco lofted it up deep to Brandon Stokley and the pass hit rookie cornerback in the face mask and then the hands. He had possession of the ball for a split second before dropping it.

Later on, Flacco lobbed another pass up for grabs, this time towards Ed Dickson on a corner route. Because the pass was under thrown, Dickson had to try and stop the Jets' defender from catching the ball — and he was successful.

Flacco was very lucky to walk away with just one interception in the game. More importantly though, the deep passing game made a return to the Ravens' offense this season as Flacco was able to connect with Smith and Jones.

Tyrod Taylor
To try and provide a spark to the run game, the Ravens used Taylor, the backup quarterback, on a variety of plays to try and confuse the Jets' defense.

Taylor has a unique skill set as he is a mobile quarterback. This adds another dimension that the defense has to provide when he enters the game.

Lining up at quarterback and wide receiver, the Ravens used him in a variety of ways.

At wide receiver, the Ravens faked an end around to him and then threw a screen pass to running back Ray Rice. Later in the game, an end around was run to Taylor for a loss of seven. He also caught a screen pass of a gain of six yards on a third and 25.

When lined up at quarterback, Taylor ran the read-option for the most part. A few times he kept the ball and ran, and other times he handed the ball of to the running back. He had two key runs on these plays. The first was a gain of 17 (the Ravens' longest rush of the game) and the second was a gain of three on third and two.

He attempted one pass — on play-action — but Dickson dropped it. The pass was a little low so they can share the blame.

Two big losses on runs (losses of seven and six) brought down Taylor's stats to four carries for seven yards.

I liked that offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell was being innovative trying to give the run game life (especially against the best run defense in the league), but I feel like it got to be too much at the end of the game. It is good to have Taylor in there for a few plays to mix things up, but eventually, the defense is going to be ready for what it coming. The Jets were able to adjust after the first few big plays. Expect him to continue to see time, just not as much as this week.

Torrey Smith
With 74 receiving yards against the Jets, Smith set a new career-high for receiving yards in a season — and he still has five games to play.

Previously, Smith's high was 855 yards which came last year (his second in the league). In his rookie season, he had 841 yards. Both of these numbers came when he was the number two receiver in the offense and in 16 games.

Now — as the number one receiver — he has 859 yards and is on pace to set new career highs in catches, targets, yards per catch and first downs.

Speaking of first downs, both of Smith's catches went for first downs yesterday. The first was a gain of 60 yards when he beat Cromartie deep. This put the ball on the Jets' 22-yard line and set up a field goal for the Ravens. Later on, he caught a slant for a gain of 14 on a second and six.

The only negative from the game was he was flagged for a false start. Something that can't happen to a wide receiver.

Jacoby Jones
While his receiving partner Smith set a new career-high, Jones racked up 249 all-purpose yards and had his first career 100-yard receiving game with the Ravens.

The last — and only other — time that Jones had a 100-yard receiving game was back in 2010 when he played for the Houston Texans.

In that game, he had 115 yards, this time he had 103 yards, which came from four catches. He also added a touchdown and led the team in catches, yards and targets (6).

On his touchdown, Flacco threw a perfect deep pass as Jones ran deep and spilt a double team led by Reed, a former Raven. Jones was able to haul in the pass for a 66-yard touchdown as he left the cornerback behind him and as Reed lost the ball in the air. This was the only touchdown of the game and put the score at 19-3.

Earlier in the game, he had a chance for a touchdown, but Reed was able to break the pass up. Also, Jones converted two of his other three catches for first downs (gains of 11 and 17).

A dangerous returner, he showed this against the Jets as he had returns of 19, 20, 37 and 21 on punt returns (though the 21-yard return was nullified due to a penalty that didn't effect the return). He totaled 108 yards on five punt returns and 38 yards on two kick returns.

Offensive Line
Going up against one of the best defensive lines in the league, the Ravens' offensive line hand their hands full for the entire game. As expected, the Ravens weren't able to get anything going handing the ball off. Rice averaged 1.9 yards per carry and his backup Bernard Pierce was barely better at 2.7.

For the most part, the Jets' defensive line handled the Ravens' offensive line as the Ravens only ran for 67 yards on 31 attempts — an average of 2.2 yards per carry.

In pass protection, the line was good despite giving up four sacks. All of these sacks were coverage sacks. The line provided enough time for Flacco to find an open receiver, but nobody was open. Flacco then tried to run around the pocket and then the pass rush was able to get to him. In these situations, Flacco needs to just throw that ball away and move onto the next play instead of taking a sack.

On an individual level, left guard A.Q. Shipley flagged for an illegal block in the back on a screen pass which set up first and 21 in the first quarter. Later on, he was called for holding when the Ravens had a first and goals from the Jets' 10-yard line. On this play, he also gave up a sack, but the Jets' defender took Flacco down via the face mask — inducing a penalty. These two penalties offset and the down was replayed.

Pernell McPhee
Playing as a situational pass rusher, McPhee was able to make the most of his snaps against the Jets'.

With four tackles, he tied for the third most on the team and two of these tackles were run stops. The first was for no gain and he shared the tackle with Arthur Brown. The other run stop came late in the fourth quarter when he stopped a run for a loss of one.

McPhee's sack, his second of the season, came on the second play of the fourth quarter — a third and nine. On the play, Elvis Dumervil had the initial pressure and forced Jets' quarterback Geno Smith to step up in the pocket. McPhee was there to take hime down for a loss of seven.

A bit of a tweener, McPhee has played both defensive end and outside linebacker for the Ravens in their 3-4 defense. No matter his position, if he continues to make plays, he is going to see his playing time increased.

Terrell Suggs
After a quiet game against the Chicago Bears last week, Suggs bounced back and had a better game — though he has now gone three straight games without a sack.

Although ESPN gave him just two tackles in the box score, I have him down for three run stops (one shared). His solo run stops were for gains of zero and two. His shared run stop was for two yards and shared with Arthur Jones.

On the first play of the Jets first drive of the second quarter, Suggs applied pressure on Smith which forced him to scramble. While scrambling, he passed the ball. However, he had gone past the line-of-scrimmage before throwing the pass which is a penalty. Suggs' pressure created this penalty.

His best play of the game came when he recovered a fumble. On the play, the Jets had a receiver come in motion and Smith was lined up in the shotgun. The ball was snapped and the ball hit the receiver who was coming in motion on this third and 13 play. A Jets player quickly went after the ball, but Suggs quickly pushed this Jet out of the way. Suggs then jumped on the ball and recovered it for the Ravens. This placed the ball at the Jets 19-yard line (though Flacco was intercepted a few plays later so no points were produced off the turnover).

Elvis Dumervil
Like Suggs, Dumervil struggled on the muddy turf at Soldier Field against the Bears last week. Also like Suggs, he was able to have a bounce back game.

An excellent pass rusher, Dumervil usually offers little in the run game though. Yesterday was different as he was able to have two run stops. The first was for a gain of three and the other was for a gain of 2.

He only had one of the Ravens three sacks, but he had pressure on the other two sacks.

His pressure on McPhee's sack has already been talked about above. On Daryl Smith's sack, Dumervil abused the tight end that was trying to block him, achieving instant pressure. He missed the sack as Geno Smith was able to shake him off, but Daryl Smith was there to finish the play.

On his sack, he beat the left tackle to the outside for a loss of eight on a first and 10. This was the last play of the game — a fitting end for a game where the Ravens' defense won the game for them.

Daryl Smith

Daryl Smith

Courtesy of ICON SMI

As usual, Smith was all over the field for the Ravens. The only difference between this week and the other games from this season was that he didn't lead the team in tackles. In fact, he wasn't even second on the team. With only three tackles, he had a season-low.

Despite this, he made the most of his time on the field recording two run stops (gains of three and two), one sack and broke up three passes.

On his sack, he blitzed in one of the A gaps (between the center and guard). Throughout the season, he has had success with these blitzes and that continued yesterday as he picked up the sack after Dumervil missed. He also picked up a pressure that forced an incompletion on a similar blitz.

Outstanding in coverage all season, Smith continued this week as he allowed two catches on six targets according to Pro Football Focus. He also broke up three pass — on three-straight plays.

On first down, he read that the tight end was running an out route and he dove in front of the pass to knock it away. The following play, the tight end ran a seam route and Smith jumped in front of the pass to break it up. On third down, he was covering a receiver on a crossing route and the receiver dropped it. While this is an anticlimactic last pass breakup, he had good coverage so he gets credited with it.

Cornerbacks
With the wind swirling around M&T Bank Stadium, the Jets didn't pass much as they tried to keep the ball on the ground. As a result, the Ravens' cornerbacks only allowed two passes to be completed against them.

Number one cornerback Lardarius Webb led the team in tackles with six and allowed no catches to be completed against him. A great run defender, he was in support all game long and recorded a run stop for a gain of one.

Jimmy Smith allowed the two passes to be completed and both went for first downs. The first was a gain of 18 to Geno Smith on a trick play out of the Wildcat formation. Josh Cribbs, normally a wide receiver, lined up at quarterback, faked a run and passed to Smith. The other pass that he allowed was a gain of 30 on a deep pass. He also had three tackles in an overall good performance.

Nickel cornerback Corey Graham played a great game as he intercepted more passes than allowed. His first interception came on a third and 17 and Smith's pass was under thrown. This placed the ball on the Ravens 12-yard line. A few plays later, Jones scored his 66-yard touchdown. Graham's other interception sealed the Ravens victory with four minutes left in the game. Smith again under threw a pass and Graham left his coverage on the outside receiver and cut in front of the slot receiver when he saw Smith throw the pass. Graham then ran outside the back of the end zone for a touchback. With one minute left in the game, he recorded a pass breakup.

The Return of Ed Reed (Part Two): Ravens vs Jets

November 23, 2013 in What to Look For

In week three, former Baltimore Ravens' safety Ed Reed, a Baltimore legend, returned to M&T Bank Stadium with the Houston Texans after signing with them in free agency. Fast-forward to week 12 and Reed is now with the New York Jets after the Texans released him. Reed gets to make his return to Baltimore again tomorrow as the Jets come to Baltimore.

Other than Reed's return, this game is going to be key because both the 4-6 Ravens and the 5-5 Jets are battling for the sixth and last playoff spot in the AFC (which only has five good teams this year).

Currently the Jets own this sixth seed, but their performance has been inconsistent all season. They have won every other game this season and their only win on the road came against a now 2-9 Atlanta team. This week pits those two trends against each other as the Jets lost to the Buffalo Bills last week and have to travel to Baltimore this week.

1.  Force Turnovers
When the Jets lose games, their main problem is turnovers. Rookie, second-round pick, quarterback Geno Smith has been as inconsistent as possible and when he succeeds, the Jets succeed.

For the season, Smith is second in the NFL with 16 interceptions. In comparison, he only has eight touchdown passes. Adding to this, he also has four fumbles — giving him a NFL-leading 20 total turnovers, and average of two per game. Of these 20 turnovers, five have been returned for touchdowns.

In Jets' losses, Smith has been particularly bad as 12 of his interceptions have come in these five games. Throughout the season, Smith has played well in wins and bad in losses.

Which Smith will show up against the Ravens? Good Geno or bad Geno?

The Ravens' defense can influence this with their schemes that they use for the game. Against the Cincinnati Bengals two weeks ago, the Ravens' defense had their best performance of the season as they intercepted Andy Dalton three times, sacked him five times and held him to a quarterback rating of 17.3. Last week, the Ravens faced Josh McCown, a backup quarterback, and lost forcing no turnovers and only sacking him two times for one yard. The pass rush was non-existent.

What was different in these two games? The type of defense the Ravens ran. Against the Bengals, the Ravens were blitz-happy, attacking and confusing Dalton. This forced him to rush his decisions and he made many bad ones. Against the Bears, the Ravens ran a conservative zone defense with little blitzing. With the weather being bad enough to cause an almost two hour delay, this could have factored in to the decision, but the conservative defense wasn't working.

Lardarius Webb

Courtesy of ICON SMI

Going up against a quarterback who is coming off of his worst game this season according to Pro Football Focus (Smith was benched late in the game) and who has only two games without a turnover, expect the Ravens to blitz often.

Smith has struggled against pressure all season and the Ravens' defense has been best when playing aggressive this season. When an aggressive form of defense is played, the cornerbacks are usually left by themselves in coverage. Over their last two games, the Ravens cornerbacks have played their best two games of the season. Lardarius Webb looks to have finally bounced back from his second torn ACL and Jimmy Smith seems to have taken the so called "next step."

The last time these two teams played, 2011, the Ravens won 34-17. The Ravens force four turnovers scored three defensive touchdowns including a Webb interception returned for a touchdown. The defense also didn't allow a touchdown as the Jets scored on a kickoff return and an interception return.

Forcing turnovers is the number one way to beat the Jets. At times, the Ravens' defense has struggled to do this season, but when they run an aggressive defense, they have had success. Expect them to come out and try to confuse Smith with some exotic blitzes, bringing back memories of Rex Ryan's (the current Jets head coach) Ravens defenses when they used "organized chaos."

2.  Stop The Run
In order to help protect Smith and following Ryan's brand of smash-mouth football, the Jets' offense is run-heavy.

Having a successful run game is the number one way to help a rookie or inexperienced quarterback. With a good run game, the defense will stack the box in order to stop the run. This then leaves easier reads and throws for a quarterback when he has to throw the ball.

The Jets did this a few years ago when they have Mark Sanchez at quarterback and, despite Sanchez's shortcomings, they were able to make it to the AFC Championship Game in back-to-back seasons (a dominant defense led the way though).

This season, the run game is working yet again. Averaging 129.5 yards per game, the eighth best in the league, the Jets are having success pounding defenses with a constant running game. The Jets are also eighth in the league in rushing attempts so they are not going to go away from their game plan if they fall behind. Even in last weeks blowout loss to the Bills, the Jets ran the ball 23 times while attempting 29 passes.

Spearheading the Jets run game recently has been Chris Ivory. Over the last four games, he has 350 yards — despite only gaining 11 in one of the games. Acquired in a draft-day trade, Ivory didn't handle the bulk of the workload at the start of the season as he struggled with injuries. Recently though, he has gotten healthy and showed why the Jets gave up a fourth-round pick for him.

While he was recovering from injuries, Bilal Powell took the reins of the Jets attack. In the first six games of the season, he had 360 rushing yards — enough to keep the offense going while waiting for Ivory.

For the season, Ivory has 467 yards and Powell has 441.

The Ravens' run defense has been up-and-down this season. Allowing 102.7 yards per game, they ran 11th best in the NFL and have allowed only one rushing touchdown this season — the best in the league by two. The Ravens also rank sixth in yards per attempt at 3.7.

Despite this success, the Ravens have been run on this season. The Bills ran for 203 yards, the Packers had 140 (with Eddie Lacy gaining 120 of these) and the Pittsburgh Steelers ran for 141. Lacy is the only 100-yard rusher allowed this season though.

With key run defender Haloti Ngata questionable (very questionable at that), expect the Jets' game-plan to include lots of run plays. Ngata missed last week against the Chicago Bears and the Bears ran for 104 yards, though they ran outside more than inside.

3.  Neutralize The Defensive Line
Moving to when the Ravens are on offense, the most important thing for them to do is to neutralize the Jets' defensive line.

The clear-cut star of the Jets' defense is defensive end Muhammad Wilkerson. With his performance this season, he has locked down the title of the best 3-4 defensive end not named J.J. Watt. Dominant all season and last year, Wilkerson has eight sacks this season and only has three games without a sack. Adding to this, he has 40 tackles, two forced fumbles and one interception. The best pass rusher of the Jets' line, he is also a great run defender. At only 24-years old, Wilkerson is set to disrupt offensive lines for years to come.

At the other defensive end is Sheldon Richardson — the 13th pick of this year's NFL Draft. Reaping the benefits of playing next to Wilkerson and in Ryan's defense, Richardson has 50 tackles, 2.5 sacks and one forced fumble in just 10 games. Already one of the best run defenders in the NFL, his pass rush has been slower developing. Despite this, he is one of the leading candidates for defensive rookie of the year.

Playing the all-important nose tackle in Ryan's 3-4 defense is Damon Harrison, an undrafted free agent from the 2012 draft. At 350 pounds, he is the perfect player to play nose tackle for Ryan. Commanding a double team, Harrison is very hard to move out of the way in the run game. Because of this, he has enjoyed great success in run defense, which is all the Jets ask of him. He has 41 tackles and one sack this season.

Because of these three great, young defensive lineman, the Jets have the number one run defense in the league. They are top of the league in total yards (732), yards per game (73.2) and yards per attempt (2.9). On the flip side, the Ravens' offense is 27th in total run yards (832), 27th in yards per game (83.2) and 31st in yards per carry (3.0).

The Ravens' offensive line is going to struggle to move the Jets' defensive line out of the way when they run. After having their best run game of the season — against one of the worst run defenses in the Bears — the Ravens will likely continue to struggle to run the ball this week.

On the other hand, the Jets' pass defense is a lot worse (22nd in the NFL). This means that the Ravens will game plan to pass the ball against this Jets team. Quarterback Joe Flacco is going to need to play a great game this week in what will likely to a low scoring affair. If any team can get to 20 points, they will more than likely win the game.

4.  Torrey Smith vs Antonio Cromartie
Flacco's number one target this year when passing the ball has been Smith and Cromartie is the Jets number one cornerback.

Ryan likes to leave his cornerbacks on an island in man coverage while he blitzes. He also has his best cornerback matchup with the opponents number one receiver. Darrelle Revis was the master at doing this, but he was traded this offseason which put Cromartie in the number one spot.

At the start of the season, Smith was at the top of most receiving categories, but over the last few weeks, his performance his dipped. Currently he is only in the top ten of two categories: yards per catch (eighth) and receptions over 20 yards (tied for third).

When you compare him to the other Ravens' receivers, he is miles above the others. He leads the team in catches by 10, has twice the amount of targets as the second highest (92 for him 46 for next best), yards by 474 and first downs by 15.

He is best at deep routes, though he has become a more complete receiver this season. This plays into the weakness of the Jets' defense: the big play.

Ryan has called big plays the "Achilles heel" of his defense this season and Cromartie has been beaten deep multiple times by speed receivers.

The easiest way to create a big play is to throw a deep pass. Last year, Flacco had much success throwing deep passes — especially during the Ravens' playoff run. However, this season has been a different story.

Expect the Ravens to use Smith to attack Cromartie and the Jets' defense deep throughout the game. Cromartie has struggled in coverage this season so there is a good chance that Smith can beat Cromartie deep.

Ravens Cut Huff and Spears

October 30, 2013 in Free Agency, News

Continuing to shake up their roster during their bye week, the Baltimore Ravens have cut veterans Michael Huff and Marcus Spears. Taking their place on the 53-man roster are safeties Omar Brown and Brynden Trawick.

Both Huff and Spears were signed this offseason after they were released by the Oakland Raiders and the Dallas Cowboys respectively.

Michael Huff

Courtesy of ICON SMI

Huff was signed to a three-year deal worth $6 million and Spears signed a two-year deal worth $3.55 million. Since both players are vested veterans, there is no salary cap relief this season as their contracts became fully guaranteed when they made the roster at the start of the season. Next year's salary cap is changed though with $2.5 million cleared, but there will be $1.3 million in dead money on the cap due to guarantees on their contracts.

Huff was supposed to replace Ed Reed at free safety this season, but was benched after three quarters in the season opener against the Denver Broncos in favor of first-round pick Matt Elam. Since then, Huff has played special teams and very sparingly on defense. On special teams, Huff struggled and was the contain player against the Steelers in week seven when Emmanuel Sanders returned a kickoff 44 yards setting up the game-winning drive. It could have been worse on this play but Sanders barely stepped out-of-bounds saving the touchdown. He leaves the Ravens having made six tackles.

Spears was only active for five of the Ravens' seven games this season due to injuries and missed most of the preseason as well. In these five games, he recorded ten tackles and started week three against the Houston Texans due to an injury to Chris Canty. Third-round pick Brandon Williams had been outplaying Spears this season and impressed when he wasn't active, which led to his release.

Taking their spots on the roster are Brown and Trawick who were on the practice squad.

Brown impressed in the preseason last year and this season as the ball seems to find him whenever he is on the field.

Trawick initially made the Ravens roster, but was cut after appearing in three games. In these games, he made three tackles — all of which came on special teams. He is also the player that ran into Jacoby Jones in the season opener, which sprained Jones' MCL and kept him out for a few weeks.

With two open spots on the practice squad, the Ravens signed quarterback Nick Stephens and wide receiver Kamar Aiken. Stephens spent the preseason with the Cowboys and Aiken was with the New England Patriots.

By bringing Brown and Trawick up to the active roster, the Ravens now have six safeties on the roster. This is likely to change next week when cornerback Asa Jackson comes off of his eight-game suspension.

These two moves were done to try and improve the Ravens' weak special teams units which have struggled all season. Both Brown and Trawick will contribute there. Spears wasn't able to and Huff wasn't good enough to.

While these moves come as a surprise and indicate the Ravens failed in free agency, the silver lining is both Huff and Spears were out-played by rookies which means the Ravens 2013 draft class is coming along nicely.

Baltimore-Pittsburgh Rivalry is More Than Just Ravens-Steelers

October 20, 2013 in Baltimore Ravens, Pittsburgh Steelers

I could sit here and write an article about what the Baltimore Ravens need to do today to win their fourth straight game at Heinz Field against their most hated rivals, the Pittsburgh Steelers. I could point out that the Ravens need to get their 27th ranked rushing attack on track, protect their Super Bowl MVP QB against the blitzing defense of the ageless coordinator Dick Lebeau, and of course— do not turn the ball over on the road.

I could also tell you that the Ravens need to prevent Steelers QB, Ben Roethlisberger from beating them outside the pocket. Big Ben is 9-4 vs. the Ravens (incl. playoffs) and did not play in the series last season, as he recovered from a rib injury. He never seems to beat the Ravens standing behind his line, if you know what I mean.

I could tell you all of this but none of it matters—absolutely none of it. The Ravens and the Steelers will not be able to run the ball and it is likely that the QB with the ball in his hand last will win the game. That is almost a certainty.

When Baltimore and Pittsburgh battle, it’s likely to be a close game. Dating back to 2008, when John Harbaugh became head coach, the Ravens and Steelers have each won five regular season series games. Incredibly, 3 points, including seven of the last eight games, have decided eight of the last 10 contests between these teams. Three points have decided all the last five regular season games played in Pittsburgh, with the Ravens outscoring the Steelers 93-90. Finally, the Ravens have won three-straight games at Heinz Field, all by a 3-point margin.

ESPN’s Mike Golic said Friday on his radio show, Mike & Mike in the Morning, that this is probably the best rivalry in sports because it’s a rivalry played on the field—meaning the players have a genuine dislike at times for one another and it’s not just all about the fans. Joe Flacco and Ben Roethlisberger echoed those sentiments as call in guests. However, in my humble opinion—what makes this rivalry so special is the fact that teams, cities and fan bases are so much alike, it’s almost scary. The hatred and yes it is a fair word in a respectful sense when talking football, is genuine.

It is the most physical rivalry in the NFL with both teams’ defenses leading the way, especially since John Harbaugh arrived in 2008. Since the 08 season, the Steelers and Ravens are first and third respectively in total yards allowed during that span, they are one and two in fewest points allowed, as well.

If you think this rivalry loses a little bit of explosiveness today because the Steelers are 1-4 and the Ravens are a struggling 3-3, you are wrong. If you think, the rivalry will weaken because No.52 and No.20 are no longer lining up across the line of scrimmage looking to break Ben Roethlisberger—–you would once again be wrong.

The rivalry will always exist even with players like Ray Lewis and Ed Reed now gone. It will exist when Big Ben and Joe Flacco retire. It did before their arrival and will remain long after every player that takes the field today is collecting an NFL pension. Despite the similarities in the cities and their fans, there is a genuine respected hatred between both the players and the fans. Please do not leave comments saying you do not understand how hate is involved. Please do not tell me it is just sports. If you are a true sports fan from either city, then you get where this column is going.

Have you ever heard the expression, we are too much alike, and that is why we do not get along? Well, truer words have never been spoken when it comes to the Ravens, Steelers and the great fans of each team and both cities.

Whether you admit it or not, and despite the respected hatred, the cities of Baltimore and Pittsburgh are very much alike, and so are the people. Both cities sit on the water, rose to economic prominence through the industrial age and almost died with its decline. Each utilized the waterfront to revitalize the downtown areas, and added tourism as a measure of replacement for the loss of industrial income.

Both cities even have distinct ways of speaking with hard dialects about their teams.

Bawlmerese would sound like this from the front stoop on the white marble steps, "How 'bout dem O's hon" and “kmoin FlakO beet da terble tals fer once.” And Pittsburgheese is alive and well and "Yins see the Stiller’s lose to Baldeemore," or “Dwana go dahn da karner bahr and ketch da BucOs game”, are very popular in the Steele city.

To match that dialect, each city has its very own fancy beer, and even though both are no longer brewed there, both are forever linked with the cities sports franchises. In Baltimore, it is National Bohemian, but you would be wise to ask for a "Natty Boh" while out on the town.

In old Memorial Stadium, Natty Boh signs could be seen everywhere throughout the park, and for a period, appeared as the main advertisement on the big scoreboard in centerfield.

In Pittsburgh–, it’s what else, Iron City Beer. Now brewed in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, unopened Iron City cans appear on EBay with Steelers Super Bowl Champion teams from the 70's quite frequently up for bid. Both beers, if consumed in large quantities, will make you wish you did not the next day.

A major part of both cities' revival was the building of four new stadiums. All four were built in similar fashion. The O’s (Camden Yards) and Bucs (PNC Park) used the classic baseball stadium looks, while the Ravens (M&T Bank Stadium) and Steelers (Heinz Field) built stadiums that were perfect fits for their cities, and architecturally, looked outstanding, as stadiums go.

While all this makes these cities very much alike, what sets them apart and creates the dislike are the sports. The fact that Pittsburgh sports teams are responsible for preventing or eliminating the Colts, Ravens, Orioles, and Washington Capitals (Baltimore hockey fans follow the Capitals for the most part) a combined 15 times from their sports post season, drives me to hatred. A respectful hatred, but make no mistake, it is a pure red-blooded hatred for all things black and yellow.

I know the sports history of Pittsburgh, as I know mine. I remember worrying about my father, who was there when the Baltimore Colts took a beating in one of two playoffs games in the mid 1970’s, while a small airplane crashed in the upper deck of Memorial Stadium at the end of one of them.

For the fans of those seats, it was probably a good thing that Terry Bradshaw and company were thumping Bert Jones and the Colts. Otherwise, those seats may have been filled with fans, causing many people to be killed.

Thank God, I was not there when the great Roberto Clemente led the Pirates back from a 2-0 deficit to beat my Baltimore Orioles in seven games during the 1971 World Series.

However, I was in attendance for all four games at Memorial Stadium when the Pirates defeated my O’s again in seven games, this time, coming back from a three games to one deficit, to win the 1979 Fall Classic.

I remember as if it was yesterday when Pops, aka, Willie Stargell, took a Scott McGregor pitch just barely over the right field wall in Game 7 to give the Pirates a 2-1 lead. For the record, Sister Sledge and their hit, “We Are Family,” does not make me want to get up and dance.

Speaking of being down three games to one, and another reason the Baltimore-Pittsburgh rivalry is so deep, is the involvement of hockey. I was there on more than one occasion when Mario Lemieux and his Pittsburgh Penguins completed numerous comebacks in the Stanley Cup Playoffs to eliminate my Washington Capitals. Now there is the whole Sid the Kid vs. Ovie thing.

Most sports fans in Charm City are huge hockey fans, and many support the Capitals. In fact, when Baltimore had an American Hockey League franchise (The NHL’s top minor league), they were affiliated with the Penguins from 1981-88 and then the Capitals the following five seasons.

Let’s not kid ourselves here; football is the fuel that feeds this rivalry between the two cities as both Pittsburgh and Baltimore have a storied and historic football past, both well documented. The Steelers of the 70's and The Baltimore Colts of the 50's, 60's and 70's have contributed numerous Hall of Fame players. Both organizations had a big hand in making the NFL what it has become today.

The Charm city will always be grateful to the Pittsburgh Steelers organization. If they did not cut a certain quarterback, who knows how history would have played out at that position in Baltimore during the late 1950’s, 60’s and very early 70’s– As the story goes, in the ninth round of the 1955 NFL Draft, the Steelers drafted some lanky signal caller from Louisville named Johnny Unitas.

As the odd man out among four quarterbacks trying to fill three spots, Unitas was released before the season began. Steelers Head Coach Walt Kiesling did not think Johnny U was smart enough to quarterback an NFL team. And the rest is well-documented great Baltimore Hall of Fame Football history. By the way from 1955 until Unitas left Baltimore in 1972, the Steelers made the playoffs just once (1972) and finished above .500 just five times. All Unitas did was become known, as one of the greatest field generals in the history of the game, winning two World Championships (58 & 59) and one Super Bowl (1970).

Ironically, the year after Unitas departed for one last season in San Diego, the Steelers won the Super Bowl. In fact, they have won and NFL record six Lombardi Trophies and made the postseason 25 times in 41 years. Along with the Patriots and maybe one or two other franchises, the Ravens and the Steelers are model NFL organizations. They stick to a philosophy and do not deviate. Sometimes and as fans from both teams are experiencing at its fullest this season, to a fault.

Today’s version of the Steelers and Ravens are almost identical in their build. Both believe in front office stability and possess solid ownership. The Ravens are on their third coach in franchise history, and the Steelers are on just their third coach in 30 plus years. Both were built on stout defenses that featured All-Pro linebackers and all-world safeties. Both have a quarterback that came from a small college, both are similar in size and build, and have played much better than fans thought they would the day they were drafted.

Both teams have tried during the past few seasons to add a little finesse to their offense and become more of what the NFL is today—a pass happy sexy game, void of hard hitting and the rushing attack. But if you look at the teams this year, they are failing more than succeeding because they cannot execute the aspects of the game plan that made each team what it has become. Do not kid yourself, yes Joe Flacco was great in the playoffs but the Ravens defense got healthy and played Ravens football in January to get to February last season.

This year is a different story. Pittsburgh recorded their first turnover of the season last week vs. the Jets and the Ravens are averaging 2.7 yards per carry this season. Uncharacteristic of both teams.

Even the players from both teams, who come from different parts of the country, are not bashful when it comes to the rivalry. While both teams have a ton of respect for one another, they are also quick to do a little trash talking. Remember when Steelers safety Ryan Clark said the Ravens would never win a Super Bowl with Joe Flacco playing quarterback? I do and you had better believe Clark does.

Growing up in "Bawlmer" I know what a rivalry is all about, and for me it is anything involving Pittsburgh. Making this rivalry even more heated is the fact that many from Pittsburgh migrated to Baltimore during the industrial downturn. Looking on the web, there are still six Steelers fan club bars in Maryland.

Today’s matchup with the Steelers is no different from any other. It is life or death for me, and many in Baltimore and Pittsburgh as well. I live in Florida now, and see the black and gold everywhere. I guess six Super Bowls tend to attract a few “extra fans on the wagon”.  It is a strange thing this rivalry, Baltimore & Pittsburgh— I was actually pulling for the Pirates this year when they made the playoffs for the first time since 1992 and many Pirates fans did the same last year when the Orioles did it and it is tough to truly “hate” a guy like Troy Polamalu. I never miss a Mike Tomlin Press conference but you can have Sidney Crosby.

The good news is that the team that wins gets bragging rights and the team that loses does not have to wait long for redemption. The Ravens and Steelers will play in a few short weeks on Thanksgiving night in Baltimore. The Ravens have won 13 of their last 15 games against AFC North foes—want to take a guess at which team has those two victories?

For the record, the last time the Ravens won the Super Bowl, the Steelers beat them twice the following season, including the playoffs. It is not just what happens on the field today that creates this rivalry, the players are a big part of it but the cities and the fans wearing purple and yellow are what truly keeps it going. In this rivalry, the players must simply do their part, which is to play hard-nosed blue-collar football—just like the cities.

Speaking of being similar, did you happen to catch my last name? Know any Polish people in Pittsburgh?

For Matt Pearce's latest injury article on today's game, please click here

Ravens Continue to Shine in September With Win Over Texans: Fact & Opinion

September 24, 2013 in Baltimore Ravens, Observations

The more things change, the more they stay the same. How appropriate that on a day when Ed Reed returned to play against his former team and the Ravens honored arguably the greatest middle linebacker to ever wear a football uniform—much less a purple one, the defense led the hometown Ravens to a convincing 21 point victory over the Houston Texans.

It was not quite the beating the Texans delivered to the Ravens last October in Houston but the 30-9 victory sent a message to the rest of the National Football League that the demise of the Super Bowl Champs might have been greatly exaggerated.

Here are a few facts and opinions about the Baltimore Ravens victory at M&T Bank Stadium on Sunday.

Fact: The Houston Texans ran 61-plays for 264 yards in Sundays contest. They converted just three of 12 third downs, were held to just 94 yards rushing. Texans QB Matt Schaub was 25-35 for 194-yards and one interception. He was sacked three times, losing 24-yards. His rating was a paltry 72.8.

Meanwhile, Arian Foster and Ben Tate combined to carry the football 21-times for 90-yards. For the second consecutive week, rookie DeAndre Hopkins led all Texans receivers in receptions (6) and yards (60). Andre Johnson was hobbled with a leg injury and no factor while TE Owen Daniels was also no factor with five catches for 29-yards.

Opinion: The Ravens defense was good on Sunday but they must continue to get better. This unit has the potential to be special, as they simply imposed their will on a Texans offense that has quality talent. They are not the Denver Broncos but they have weapons. The Ravens defense bent but did not break on the Texans two drives that resulted in field goals. In fact, Houston gained 26 percent of their total yardage for the day on their opening drive when they marched 69-yards in 16-plays. On their third drive, Houston only had to go 18-yards to make the score 6-0.  On three separate drives, the Texans gained a total of minus one yard.

Led by Daryl Smith, who had 10-tackles and an interception returned for a touchdown, the first of his NFL career, the Ravens defense was consistent and dominating on Sunday. How appropriate that the player of the game was Smith on a day when the franchise honored the best ever MLB to play the game. The Ravens are now 30-2 since 2000 when they record a pick 6.

Haloti Ngata, whom Greg Gumbel referred to as the Rock of Gibraltar continues to play well inside. He, along with Terrell Suggs and Arthur Jones each registered a sack of Schaub. Jones and Suggs have now combined for five sacks this season for the Ravens. The biggest difference in the game was perhaps the speedy play of the safeties. This was critical in taking away the short middle of the field, preventing TE Owen Daniels from killing the team as other TE’s of Daniels skill set has done. James Ihedigbo and Matt Elam played quick and showed phenomenal closing speed. Both combined to make 14-tackles while breaking up three passes.

The first pick 6 of Smith's career

The first pick 6 of Smith's career

In fact, according to Profootballfocus.com, Ihedigbo registered six defensive stops against the Texans, only one less than he registered in 294 snaps in last year’s regular season. The biggest noticeable difference to this fans eye was the speed of the Ravens defense vs. the zone-blocking scheme of the Texans offensive line. Arian Foster is a very patient back and at times found the hole but on most occasions, the speed of the Ravens defense did not allow for the Texans running game to develop, as the secondary closed fast and the linebackers tracked well all day. The defensive line clogged running lanes and consumed blockers allowing the Ravens back seven or eight to make plays and stops.

It was easy to sit back and flash back to the early part of the 2000’s when the Ravens defense dominated and special teams made big plays, especially after Tandon Doss, who did not make the final roster cuts but was brought back after the Jacoby Jones injury, returned a Shane Lechler punt 82-yards for a TD.

Doss, who showed flashes of breaking one, last week vs. Cleveland, did on Sunday against Houston. The Doss punt return TD came just 1:54 following Smith’s pick 6. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, over the last 12 seasons, 15 teams have scored a pair of defensive or special-team TDs within a 2-minute span and those teams have a 15-0 record.

FACT: Through three games, the Ravens rushing attacks has just 232-yards on 88 attempts and is averaging just 2.6 yards per carry. Bernard Pierce had 24-carries for 65 yards on Sunday, while newcomer Shaun Draughn saw his first action as a Raven with four carries for just two yards.

Opinion: Ravens offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell is showing no signs of abandoning the running game and I’m not so sure his predecessor (Cam Cameron) would be doing the same at the moment. The Ravens had just 24 yards on the ground at halftime but utilized the running game to kill clock and make a few plays in the second half. The biggest play came with the Ravens once again pinned down deep late in the third quarter. From their own four-yard line, Bernard Pierce took a Flacco handoff and scooted up the right sideline for 25-yards getting the Raves out of trouble.

The drive was huge in that it consumed 13 plays for 69 yards and led to three more points, essentially ending the contest for Houston who would now have to score three times to win. The Ravens rushed six times on the drive totaling just 27-yards. Therefore, that means after Pierce’s 25-yard scamper, the Ravens gained just two yards on five carries—But they stayed with it, killing valuable clock time. The yards will come but they will not if the Ravens give up on running the ball, which is a big part of Flacco being able to go down the field.

FACT: Speaking of Flacco, he was 16-for-24 for 171 yards, was sacked twice and posted an 87.3 rating. He targeted WR Torrey Smith only three times in the first half but after the Ravens' defense and special teams put them on the board, Flacco and Smith, who finished with five catches for 92-yards, seem to find a rhythm. Two plays between Flacco and Torrey Smith changed the way the Texans were forced to play defense in the second half.

The first was when Flacco beat his nemesis in Texans cornerback Jonathan Joseph, who has four career pickoffs against Flacco, for a 48-yard pitch and catch to the Houston 35-yard line. Not long after, Flacco went after Kareem Jackson, who committed two pass defense penalties on the day, as Smith made a spectacular catch but replay overturned the catch because Smith did not have complete control all the way to the ground.

The plays backed up the Houston secondary and forced them to play the speedy Ravens receivers more aggressively. On the same drive but a later sequence, Flacco found Smith running a left-to-right crossing route, beating Brice McCain to the sideline and getting the ball to the Texans' 8-yard line. Kareem Jackson was then flagged for interfering with Tandon Doss in the end zone, which gave the Ravens first and goal at the one. Flacco was 3-5 on the drive for 77-yards with Smith hauling in two of them for 75.

Opinion: I was worried if Smith could improve his game enough this season to be the go to guy the Ravens would have to have in the receiving corp. This drive proves he has become just that. Smith seemed to put the offense on his back during this drive and simply made plays, even if they did not count. Yes, Flacco made some nice throws with nice touch, as he stood in the pocket under constant pressure but this was shades of Flacco to Boldin in the playoffs. Without Smith making those plays, the Ravens offense likely falters again and is forced to punt. Bernard Pierce scored form the one to give the Ravens a 24-9 lead to cap off the nine play 80-yard 3:55 drive– but if the Ravens do not get this touchdown, the game likely remains 16-9 and well within reach of a Houston team that won its first two games in come from behind fashion.

Fact: The Ravens offensive line was offensive at times in the game on Sunday. According to Pro-Football Focus, JJ Watt had one of his best games as a pro. His +7.0 run defense grade from this game is highest single game run defense grade of his career. During their ReFo segment yesterday, PFF said, “Through three games Watt is already at a +20.8 overall grade, only marginally behind the +23.8 he sat on at the same stage last season. What makes this performance all the more astonishing is who he did it against, doing what very few defensive players can do and making an All-Pro guard like Marshal Yanda (-1.7 overall) look ordinary. Watt did a lot, more than any other player, of his good work against Michael Oher more so than Yanda but his work against the Ravens ground game (+7.0) was astonishing and the seven stops he recorded this week is a mark he only topped once last season, when he recorded 10 against the Colts in Week 15. His base stats may be down on last season, but don’t for a second think he isn’t playing just as well as he did all of last season.”

Opinion: Just like last year’s game in Houston, the Ravens were unable to stop Watt but unlike like last year’s game in Houston, the Ravens did not let Watt beat them. He made his plays but the Ravens were able to minimize the damage Watt was able to do. The team's perennial leading tackler, inside linebacker Brian Cushing and his partner Joe Mays were dominating against the Ravens rushing attack but Flacco stayed cool unlike last year, when he posted the lowest total ESPN QBR in five seasons. While this was not the Ravens best offensive line performance, getting a win vs. a defense like the one the Texans have is always a step in the right direction.

JUST THE FACTS PLEASE—JUST THE FACTS

Joe Flacco is now 11-0 at home in September starts in his NFL career, the best record for a quarterback in the Super Bowl era (minimum 10 attempts per start). The Ravens are now 6-1 vs. Houston all-time and the Texans remain one of four AFC teams that have yet to win in the Charm City. San Diego, Miami and Oakland are the others. (Press Box On Line)

Following the Ravens Week 1 debacle in Denver, in which they were the last ranked defense in the NFL, Baltimore is now ranked 15 and climbing the charts, allowing an average of 344.3 yards per game. The Seahawks, Texans, Jets, Saints & Steelers are 1-5.

Staying with the statistical theme, the Ravens are sixth in the NFL with 11 sacks this season. They are ranked No. 12 at stopping the pass and fourth against the run, allowing just 74.7 yards per game on the ground. The offense is heading in the opposite direction, as they are ranked No. 30 overall in the NFL after three weeks. They are No.20 in passing and No.25 rushing the ball with just 77.3 yards per game. Only the Jacksonville Jaguars rank lower in the league in terms of yards per carry.

The Ravens are much better on third down on both offense and defense this season than they were last year at this time. On offense, the Ravens are 24 for 54 on third down and are ranked eighth in the NFL with a 44.4 percent conversion rate. On defense, they are ranked 13, holding opponents to a 35.7 conversion rate. The Ravens have held the Texans and Browns to 7-for-27 on third down (25.9) the previous two weeks after allowing the Broncos to convert on 8-of-15 attempts.

The Ravens ran the ball 31 times and threw it 24 times, including two sacks allowed. The team's total run-pass ratio through three games is now minus-39 (88 runs, 119 passes, including eight sacks allowed).

The Texans' defense allowed 236 total yards in Sunday's loss, the first time Houston allowed an opposing team less than 250 yards and lost the game since Week 8 of 2007. The team was 15-0 in those games from 2008-13 before Sunday's loss.

The Ravens have posted a record of been 2-1 or better through the first three weeks for 10 of the last 11 seasons. The team has lost only three of its last 29 at home and has not lost two of its first three during any season since 2005. The last defeat I can find in September, at home for the Ravens, occurred when the Indianapolis Colts beat them 24-7 back on Sept 11 2005. The Ravens are now 37-23 in September, their most successful month.

The Ravens have not been shut out at home since eventual Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers, beat them 25-0 in the Ravens 2002 home opener. That was the game in which the Ravens honored Johnny Unitas, who passed away earlier in the week. They have now gone 177 consecutive regular-season games without being shut out and have scored in 293 of its 295 games.

The Bills and Two Memorable Contests:key_art_buffalo_bills

The Ravens will travel to Ralph Wilson Stadium to play the Buffalo Bills on Sunday. The Ravens last and only visit there resulted in a 19-14 loss, which was the first of a club-record nine straight defeats, following a 4-2 start. Baltimore is 3-2 all-time vs. Buffalo. They beat them the last time the two teams played in Baltimore on October 24, 2010 but it was not easy for the Ravens.

The Bills jumped out to a 24-10 lead before the Ravens stormed back to take a 27-24 lead. Following a Willis McGahee two-yard plunge, the Ravens would lead by 10 points but Buffalo did not quit and scored 10 fourth quarter points to tie the game at 34-34. Billy Cundiff would win the game for the Ravens with a 38-yard field goal in overtime.

The Bills once beat the Ravens way back in 1999 on a memorable Halloween afternoon in Baltimore. In a game in which both teams combined for just 449 total yards of offense, the Ravens led the Bills all afternoon. The only offense the Ravens could produce was a Tony Banks to Justin Armour TD pass and a Matt Stover field goal.

However, with a 10-6 lead, Banks fumbled the ball with just 3:48 to play giving Bills QB Doug Flutie one more shot. After pressuring the former Heisman Trophy winner all afternoon, forcing three interceptions and sacking him three additional times, Ravens defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis elected to play a prevent scheme and Flutie took full advantage. Flutie needed just 1:50 to drive the Bills 45-yards on nine plays completing four of eight passes. The completion was a five-yard TD pass to Jonathan Linton to give the Bills their first lead of the game and the eventual 13-10 win. The prevent defense had once again done its job by preventing the team using it from wining the game.

The Ravens would get one more shot with 1:50 to play but Banks could not recover from the fumble and was sacked by ESPN’s Marcellus Wiley to start the final drive. He would complete just one pass of the five he threw, as the Bills took over downs to run out the clock. The Ravens dropped to 2-5 on the 1999 season with the loss but did rebound to finish 8-8 before winning the Super Bowl the next season.

** fact stats courtesy of  ESPN Stats & info, Elias Sports Bureau, and Ravens Media Press Guide.

Defense and Special Teams Sparks Victory

September 23, 2013 in Observations

On a day where Ray Lewis and Ed Reed returned to M&T Bank Stadium, the Ravens defense led the way to a 30-9 victory over the Houston Texans. This victory puts the Ravens at 2-1 and drops the Texans to 2-1. With this win, the Ravens now have a 14 game win streak in home games during the month of September and they are 17-1 in their last 18 home games against non-divsional opponents.

With 15 penalties for 143 yards at halftime, this game had the most first half penalties in one game so far this season and by the end of the game the 24 accepted penalties are the most so far this season.

For the second straight week, the Ravens' defense allowed no touchdowns, just three field goals, all in the first half.

The Texans started out strong grabbing a 6-0 lead and this lead could have been 14-0 if not for strong red zone defense. With the Ravens' offense struggling in the first half (65 total yards), their defense and special teams took over with an interception returned for a touchdown by linebacker Daryl Smith and a punt return for a touchdown by Tandon Doss within a span of two minutes. After these two plays, the Ravens had new life and the Texans were never the same.

Also, the Ravens released S Brynden Trawick today after claiming S Jeromy Miles off of waivers from the Cincinnati Bengals.

Special Teams
Starting with the obvious, Doss returned a punt 82 yards for a touchdown with one minute left in the first half. Occurring soon after Smith's interception, this punt return gave the Ravens all the momentum heading into halftime. On the return, Doss fielded the punt and ran up the near side of the field. He went untouched and for the last 45 yards, he was right along the sidelines. His momentum almost carried him out-of-bounds but he was able to fight that and stay in-bounds. Punter Shane Lechler's 58-yard punt outkicked his coverage on the play and Doss made him pay. This is Doss' first career punt return for a touchdown and is the 5th longest in Ravens history. Cut during the final roster cuts before the season, Doss was only re-signed after week one when starting returner Jacoby Jones went down with an injury.

Tandon Doss

Courtesy of ICON SMI

When you take away Doss" return, the Ravens' special teams didn't perform well, getting called for four of the Ravens 10 penalties. The first of which came on the Texans first drive. The Texans had lined up for a field goal on a fourth and four but, the Ravens had 12 men on the field so a penalty was called. This gave the Texans a first down and allowed them to continue their drive. Although the Texans ended up only scoring a field goal on this drive, the penalty greatly shortened the distance of this field goal.

On the ensuing kickoff from the Texans first field goal, the Ravens offense was set up at their own seven-yardline by a holding penalty. This was called on rookie John Simon.

On a Ravens punt, another rookie, Trawick was called for a penalty, this time a personal foul. This penalty gave the Texans the ball at the Ravens 29. With this field position, the Texans were already in field goal range and they ended up kicking one. This is probably the reason that he was released to day as the only reason he made the team was due to special teams contributions and he had a costly penalty and he was the one who ran into Jones week one, injuring him.

The last of these four special teams penalties can on a punt return. Courtney Upshaw was penalized for holding, setting the offense up at their own five.

Overall, when you take away Doss' touchdown, the Ravens' special teams was very poor basically giving the Texans free points and pinning their own offense inside their own 10.

Joe Flacco
For the entire first half, the Ravens offense struggled to move the ball, though they weren't helped by bad field position. Flacco is a big part of that as in the end, the responsibility of the offense will always fall to him.

Throwing for 171 yards, Flacco went 16-of-24 with no touchdowns or interceptions and a QB rating of 87.3. It wasn't a spectacular performance but it got the job done.

In the second half, the offense came out throwing more and was more aggressive with these passes. After not throwing deep at all in the first half, Flacco tried going deep multiple times on the opening drive of the first half and the offense found a rhythm, driving 80 yards in nine plays, capped off by a one-yard touchdown run from Bernard Pierce.

The best part of Flacco's day comes from his snap count. He was constantly confusing the Texans with it, forcing five offsides penalties, giving the Ravens much more manageable down and distances. One time, this hard count caused a false start by fullback Vonta Leach, but by then, the game was already won as there were just two minutes left in the game.

Torrey Smith
Catching five passes for 92 yards, Smith the Ravens in receiving yards for the third straight week. His nine targets on Sunday also led the team.

Two of his catches went for first downs, both on the same drive. First of which came on a third and 13 from the Ravens own 17-yardline. Smith ran a fly route and Flacco hit him for a gain of 48 yards — the longest play from scrimmage for the Ravens so far this season. Later in the drive, he caught a second and seven pass for a gain of 23 yards. However, the Texans challenged this play and it was overturned as Smith didn't have full possession of the ball as he rolled out-of-bounds after his leaping catch. The next play, Smith caught a short crossing route and gained 25 yards, most of it after the catch, setting the Ravens up at the Houston eight-yardline. Four plays later, the Ravens scored a touchdown.

Coming out of halftime, the Ravens made it a clear priority to target Smith more and this led to more success from the offense. He is the Ravens' top receiver so this only make sense.

Offensive Line
Another underwhelming performance by the Ravens' offense line. If you just look at the Texans' defensive stat line, it doesn't look bad as the Texans only had two sack and two other quarterback hits in 26 pass attempts. However, sacks and hits don't tell the whole story as the Texans seemed to get some sort of pressure on most pass attempts.

In the running game, Pierce had no holes to run through, so having a healthy Ray Rice would have made no difference. The offensive line couldn't move the Texans front seven out of the way and it showed. Pierce was constantly having to dodge defenders in the backfield. The Ravens ran 31 times for 75 yards, an average of 2.4 yards per carry. When you take away the 25-yard run that Pierce had when there actually was a hole, the Ravens averaged a putrid 0.6 yards per carry. Let that sink in.

Right tackle Michael Oher gave up a strip-sack on a third and 33 for a loss of two yards. On the first play of the second half, Oher was beaten by J.J. Watt for a sack which resulted in a loss of nine yards.

Right guard Marshal Yanda was able to recover the aforementioned fumble. Other than this, Yanda had a quiet day going back and fourth with Watt.

Center Gino Gradkowski had another quiet day as well. He isn't doing anything awful, but he also isn't doing anything great so far this year.

Left guard Kelechi Osemele was whistled for a holding penalty which set up a first and 20 for the Ravens.

Left tackle Bryant McKinnie had the worst day off all Ravens offensive linemen, being called for two penalties and giving up one sack. The first penalty came on a first and 10 where he was called for a facemask, taking away an 18-yard pass to Ed Dickson. However, this was a questionable call. A few plays later, on third and 18, McKinnie was called for the exact same penalty, only this time is was blatantly obvious. By himself, McKinnie was able to completely kill the Ravens third drive of the game.

Arthur Jones and Haloti Ngata
Since both of these two had extremely similar days, I'll talk about them together.

They had the exact same stat line in the box score: three tackles with one sack. Not only that, but they beat the same offensive linemen for their sack, left guard Wade Smith. Jones beat him on a first and 10 with a bull rush for a loss of seven yards. Ngata beat Smith with a swim move on a second and seven for a loss of nine.

The only difference between these two is that Jones got great penetration on a first and 10 run that blew the play up. Other than that, their play was very similar.

Terrell Suggs
Expected to have a bounce-back year after an injured riddled season led to just two sacks, Suggs is living up to expectations so far, recording sacks in all three games so far.

This week's sack came on a second and nine play where he beat right tackle Derek Newton with a perfect inside spin move causing a loss of eight yards. Making this sack even more impressive was the fact that the Newton was called for holding Suggs on the play. Just a play earlier, Suggs missed a sack as quarterback Matt Schaub was able to step up in the pocket and avoid Suggs.

For the day, Suggs recorded two tackles and his sack. One of these tackles was a run stop for a gain of one, so he made the most out of his plays that made it into the box score.

Daryl Smith
The big play that Smith made was his interception that he returned for a touchdown. This play changed the momentum of the game as it gave the Ravens the lead despite having done absolutely nothing on offense.

Despite having already played two games this season, this was the Ravens first interception of the season. On this interception, Smith jumped a short pass to Owen Daniels on a first and 10. He then went untouched for a 37-yard touchdown. This type of play comes from watching lots of film and reading the eyes of the quarterback. Smith knew that Schaub was going to throw it to Daniels so he was able to jump the route. This is his seventh career interception and his first career touchdown. Since 2003, the Ravens have 30 interceptions returned for touchdowns, the most in this time frame.

Other than his interception, Smith had another good day recording 10 tackles, 1 QB hit, and a pass deflection. He was able to get a run stop for a gain of one and also gave up one pass in coverage on a first down for a gain of nine.

James Ihedigbo
Expected to be replaced by rookie Matt Elam, Ihedigbo has quietly put in a great season so far, including an outstanding game against the Texans.

James Ihedigbo

Courtesy of ICON SMI

Recording nine tackles, with two for a loss, and 2 pass deflections, Ihedigbo had a great statistical day, stats never tell the whole story. In run defense, Ihedigbo had three run stops for short gains. The first came on first and goal on the Texans first drive where he made the tackle for a loss of two. The other two stops were for gains of two and one. In the Ravens' defense, the strong safety needs to be a good run defender and Ihedigbo was exactly that yesterday.

In pass coverage, he was equally as good. I have him down as giving up zero catches on the day. On a running back screen play, he burst through the Texans blockers and was able to stop the play for a loss of two yards. The following play, Doss returns his punt for a touchdown.

The first of his two impressive plays in pass coverage came on third and goal on the Texans first drive. Ihedigbo had tight coverage on his man and was able to break the pass up, forcing the Texans to kick a field goal.

The other play came on a fourth and two with about five minutes left in the game. The Texans ran a screen to running back Arian Foster (lined up as a wide receiver) and Ihedigbo had him in man coverage as the only defender on that side of the field. He was able to disrupt that pass forcing an incompletion. Right away, he diagnosed that is was a screen and he was with Foster step-for-step.

Overall, Ihedigbo had two stops on goal-to-go situations on the Texans first drive and stopped the Texans last important offensive play. Add that tow three other impressive plays and you have yourself a great game.

Matt Elam
Making his second start of his career, Elam had another solid but unspectacular day. After Michael Huff's week one performance, the Ravens won't be complaining about solid but unspectacular for awhile.

Elam made five tackles and had one pass deflection. In coverage he allowed two passes to be caught, both going for first downs. The first was a first and 10 pass that went for 12 yards and the second was a second and four pass that went for four yards. On a third a four play inside the Ravens' 30-yardline, Elam had tight coverage which forced a bad pass, leading to an incompletion. For most of the game, Elam was playing in a deep zone, making sure the Ravens weren't beat deep.

Cornerbacks
In a game where the Texans passed 35 times with 25 competitions, the cornerbacks allowed most of these.

Number one cornerback Lardarius Webb allowed six catches with four of them going for first downs. Of the ones that went for first downs, three of these were on second down and one was on third down. He did allow a third down catch to Andre Johnson for a loss of one as Johnson bobbled the ball on the play. Webb had seven tackles with one pass deflection.

Starting ahead of Corey Graham for the second straight game, Jimmy Smith allowed seven catches with four of them going for first downs. The Texans seemed to target him on first downs as he allowed six of his catches then with the other coming on third down. He was whistled for illegal contact when he was beaten by rookie DeAndre Hopkins on a double move. Smith also had a good pass breakup on a play late in the game. Smith had six tackles and one pass deflection.

Graham only allowed one catch but the Texans didn't target him much at all. The one catch that he did allow was on third and four where he gave up five yards. Graham had a total of three tackles on the day.