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Sunday, February 4th, I joined Ken Zalis, Reeta Hubbard, and Kyle Ottenheimer on the Fantasy & Reality Football Show on PressBox Online. We discussed last Friday's State of the Ravens press conference with owner Steve Bisciotti, the transition from Ozzie Newsome to Eric DeCosta, and how the Ravens need to refocus their attention to the early rounds of the NFL Draft, particularly in the 2nd round.
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Check out the Fantasy & Reality Football Show each Sunday from 10am to 12pm on PressBox Online.
The ending to the Baltimore Ravens 2017 season was devastating. Cincinnati Bengal’s quarterback Andy Dalton hitting Tyler Boyd for the game winning touchdown on 4th and 12 in the waning seconds of the game on New Year’s Eve is about as tough as it can get. Unless, you factor into the equation how the Ravens lost to the Pittsburgh Steelers on Christmas night in 2016. That was equally as brutal.
People around town are voicing their outrage, calling for immediate and sweeping change. On face value, that seems logical as the Ravens have missed the playoffs in four out of the last five years. The team is lodged in mediocrity, and some are saying the team is being run by a mediocracy. However, change for sake of change is a knee-jerk reaction. The Ravens do need change, but change will only have a positive impact if it is calculated and with purpose.
Now that the Ravens are in the second full week of training camp and are beginning to prepare for the first preseason game this Thursday, it is time to take a look into the crystal ball and see what the 53 man roster could look like come the start of the season.
Below, I have broken down the 90 man roster into each position labeling who is a lock and who is on the proverbial bubble. After the breakdown, we will analyze how many spots are up for grabs and which players are fighting for those spots to be on the 53 man roster.
QB (4): Joe Flacco, Ryan Mallet, Josh Johnson, Jerrod Johnson
Locks: Flacco, Mallet (2)
OT (6): Ronnie Staley, Rick Wagner, James Hurst, De’Ondre Wesley, Stephane Nembot, Blaine Clausell
Locks: Staley, Wagner (2)
Bubble: Hurst, Wesley, Nembot
OG (6): Marshall Yanda, John Urschel, Alex Lewis, Ryan Jensen, Vladimir Ducasse, Jarell Broxton
Locks: Yanda, Urschel, Lewis, Jensen (4)
C (3): Jeremy Zuttah, Anthony Fabiano, Matt Skura
Locks: Zuttah (1)
RB/FB (7): Justin Forsett, Buck Allen, Terrance West, Kenneth Dixon, Lorenzo Taliaferro, Stephen Houston; Kyle Juszczyk
Locks: Forsett, Allen, Dixon, Juszczyk, West (5)
WR (12): Steve Smith, Mike Wallace, Kamar Aiken, Breshad Perriman, Chris Moore, Michael Campanaro, Keenan Reynolds, Jeremy Butler, Chris Matthews, Kaelin Clay, Dobson Collins, Chuck Jacobs
Locks: Smith, Wallace, Aiken, Perriman, Campanaro, Moore (6)
Bubble: Butler, Reynolds, Matthews, Clay
TE (7): Benjamin Watson, Crockett Gilmore, Maxx Williams, Dennis Pitta, Darren Waller, Nick Boyle, Daniel Brown
Locks: Watson, Gilmore, Williams, Pitta (4)
*Suspended: Boyle, Waller
DT (6): Brandon Williams, Timmy Jernigan, Carl Davis, Willie Henry, Trevon Coley, Michael Pierce
Locks: Williams, Jernigan, Davis, Henry (4)
DE (4): Lawrence Guy, Brent Urban, Kapron Lewis-Moore, Bronson Kaufusi
Locks: Guy, Urban, Lewis-Moore (3)
ILB (7): CJ Mosley, Zachary Orr, Kamalei Correa, Albert McClellan, Arthur Brown, Patrick Onwuasor, Kavell Conner
Locks: Mosley, Orr, Correa, McClellan (4)
Bubble: Brown, Onwuasor
OLB (8): Terrell Suggs, Elvis Dumervil, Za’Darius Smith, Victor Ochi, Matt Judon, Chris Carter, Brennen Beyer, Mario Ojemudia
Locks: Suggs, Dumervil, Smith (3)
Bubble: Ochi, Judon, Carter, Beyer
CB (10): Jimmy Smith, Shareece Wright, Tavon Young, Jerraud Powers, Sheldon Price, Will Davis, Kyle Arrington, Maurice Canady, Julian Wilson, Sam Brown
Locks: Smith, Wright, Young, Powers (4)
Bubble: Arrington, Davis, Price, Canady, Wilson
S (6): Eric Weddle, Lardarius Webb, Anthony Levine, Kendrick Lewis, Matt Elam, Terrence Brooks
Locks: Weddle, Webb, Levine (3)
Bubble: Lewis, Elam, Brooks
K (2): Justin Tucker, Wil Lutz
P (1): Sam Koch
LS (1): Morgan Cox
Locks: Tucker, Koch, Cox (3)
Even with this conservative estimate, there appears to be 48 secure spots on the roster and five spots that are truly being competed for. Some names that are on bubble are recent free agent signings, draft picks from this year’s draft, and/or recent contributors.
Players that are vying for a roster spot are:
OL: James Hurst, De’Ondre Wesley
WR: Jeremy Butler, Keenan Reynolds
LB: Arthur Brown, Matt Judon, Victor Ochi, Chris Carter
CB/S: Kyle Arrington, Will Davis, Sheldon Price, Maurice Canady, Kendrick Lewis, Matt Elam, Terrence Brooks
A couple of factors are complicating the roster construction. One, at the moment, the Ravens are carrying an extra TE and RB, Dennis Pitta and Terrence West, respectively. Secondly, the injuries to Terrell Suggs, Steve Smith, and Breshad Perriman are a little unpredictable. While it would surprising for one or more of these players to open the year on the PUP list, that could be in the cards if the team wants/needs to be cautious. If that were the case, then there would be another roster spot open.
As I have it currently constructed, the Ravens are carrying only six offensive lineman. They will certainly include one more to the list. Over the years, the Ravens have made it a priority to accumulate, develop, and retain versatile linemen. One would think that Hurst or Wesley or a free agent veteran would nab the last offensive linemen spot.
Two players left off the roster, and not discussed, are Jeremy Butler and Keenan Reynolds. As far as Reynolds is concerned, his early struggles are alarming, but not necessarily surprising as he makes the transition from quarterback to wide receiver. With injuries becoming a concern at the wide receiver position, these two players could come into play—especially Butler. He is continually making a case for himself by catching everything thrown his way and his versatility by being able to play the outside or the slot. Plus, he has been on the field and shown to be a playmaker.
That would bring the total to 49 players (25 offensive, 21 defensive, three special teams) with four openings remaining.
The names remaining on the defensive side of the ball are higher profile—the top two picks from the ill-fated 2013 draft in Matt Elam and Arthur Brown, a 2014 3rd round draft pick in Terrence Brooks, recent free agent signings of Kyle Arrington and Kendrick Lewis, and 2016 rookies in Matt Judon, Maurice Canady, and Victor Ochi.
The Ravens wanted to add pass rushing versatility and stronger coverage skills to this year’s team which means that there will be some difficult decisions to make. Above, I have the Ravens keeping seven linebackers and seven defensive backs. At least two remaining spots will go to these areas.
Sheldon Price looks like he is playing himself onto the team. Of course, that could change once live competition begins but he fills a need by being big, long, and able to play the outside corner position. He makes the team.
That means there are three spots that the following players are vying for:
Arthur Brown, Matt Judon, Chris Carter, Brennen Beyer, Victor Ochi, Kyle Arrington, Will Davis, Maurice Canady, Kendrick Lewis, Matt Elam, and Terrence Brooks.
It will be interesting to see what the Ravens value this year. With them experimenting with a more hybrid-type safety playing linebacker in passing situations, does that make Elam, Lewis, and Brooks more viable? Will they load up pass rushers, even inexperienced ones like rookies Judon and Ochi? What value do the remaining players have on special teams?
Two players that are having a strong training camp thus far are Victor Ochi and Will Davis. Ochi is explosive, has good bend around the corner, and he reminds me a lot of Antwan Barnes. Davis, working back from ACL surgery, is playing very well. His fundamentals and technique have been fluid and sound. These are two players to keep an eye on as the preseason unfolds.
Two players that may fall into the “mysterious injury” category are cornerback Maurice Canady and defensive end Matt Judon. Both, I believe, need more seasoning but both have a nice upside. The Ravens may be willing to expose them on the practice squad, but there is too much potential.
If Ochi and Smith make the team and Canady and Judon go onto IR, there will be on spot between Brown, Arrington, Lewis, Elam, and Brooks. Arrington gets cut—he took the pay cut, he struggles on the outside, and Powers and Young are playing well in the slot. Arrington is expendable.
We are down to three recent draft picks, Elam, Brown, and Brooks and one of last year’s free agent signings of Lewis. It may be time to move on from Brown—he is buried on the depth chart, he struggles against the run and he is not a candidate for the hybrid position. This last spot is really between one of the safeties—Elam, Brooks, or Lewis.
Though Kendrick Lewis played better in coverage as the season progressed last year, he struggles against the run and doesn’t bring much to the table as a tackler. Brooks’ inconsistencies are troubling and I am not so sure the team trusts him just yet. He could be a candidate for the practice squad and/or a “mysterious injury.”
Ultimately, I think Elam gets one last opportunity to prove his status as a 1st round draft pick. The Ravens are experimenting by using him at linebacker (with Levine) and he has made strides on the field since his disaster of a 2014 season.
The final breakdown:
I love that tweet from Sam Farmer of the Los Angeles Times.
The rhetoric didn’t seem too over-the-top this past week. Maybe it was because people didn’t expect the Ravens to steal this game. Maybe it was because both teams looked horrible. Maybe it was because the Ravens stayed on the West Coast for the week and the three hour time difference didn’t allow the sound bites to be readily available. Or maybe, I just didn’t listen to all of the naysayers.
With regards to the NFL, people react and overreact on a weekly basis. The NFL should be treated as one’s golf game. You are never as good as your last golf shot, and you are never as bad as your last golf shot. The parity in the league is the great equalizer.
This post is the Reality Assessment. Although a win would have been fantastic last week, the loss to the Broncos isn’t the end of the world. However, a loss this week would be a very difficult hole for the Ravens to escape. As I stated last week, a 4-3 record would be acceptable after the grueling first seven games of the season. The second two game West Coast trip against the Arizona Cardinals and the San Francisco 49ers looks daunting—the Niners look much better than advertised, and Bruce Arians and Carson Palmer have a penchant for carving up the Ravens.
Therefore, the Ravens need to win today against the Oakland Raiders. Unfortunately, the ailments that doomed the Ravens last week will again be tested today.
Here are today’s plotlines.
Offensive Scheme, Part I: Dealing with the Pass Rush
Offensive coordinator Marc Trestman was too conservative and didn’t make enough adjustments. Denver’s pass rush was almost immediate on quarterback Joe Flacco. The Raiders are also deep on the defensive line and boast two feared speed pass rushers in Khalil Mack and Aldon Smith. Mack had 52 total pressures last year, per Pro Football Focus. The troubled Smith is a sack artist with 44 sacks in 51 career regular season games.
With backup left tackle James Hurst getting the start today and with right tackle Rick Wagner‘s struggles with speed rushers, Trestman needs to give them some help via the tight ends and running backs chipping on their way to their pass routes.
The Ravens need to use the opponent’s speed, aggressiveness, and over-pursuit to their advantage. The Ravens need to incorporate misdirections in the run and pass game. They need to attempt a few screens just to keep the defense honest. Be creative, but don’t get too cute.
Offensive Scheme, Part II: Playmakers
Last I checked, the only new player to be infused onto the Ravens this week was defensive player Jason Babin (a nice signing under the circumstances, by the way). In other words, the team still lacks speed on offense—and it will until Breshad Perriman steps onto the field.
I sound like a broken record here, but the team needs to manufacture speed through their scheme.
Why did it take until the fourth quarter last week for the Ravens to attack the middle of the field? Yes, the Broncos were giving up that part of the field because the Ravens needed a touchdown to win in the waning moments. I would expect to see more of Michael Campanaro and his route running skills over the middle.
In addition, I would expect to see the tight ends better utilized. Even though Crockett Gilmore didn’t make the play at the end of the game, he is a big, imposing body over the middle. Maxx Williams doesn’t have freak-ish Rob Gronkowski speed, but he has enough speed to exploit the seams of the field.
Finally, take Flacco’s advice. He says in the article from the Baltimore Sun, "If nothing else, at least it lets teams know that we're going to do that and have the confidence in ourselves in doing that." Again, try and keep defenses honest. The only deep shot taken last week, yes only one was taken the entire game, was a 22 yard pass and catch to Marlon Brown. Brown may be the Ravens’ and Flacco’s best bet down field because Brown’s big body is beneficial when executing the back-shoulder catch and throw.
Improved Secondary? Maybe or Maybe Not
I agree with most—the secondary did well. But it was hard to ascertain whether or not the secondary was good or Broncos’ quarterback Peyton Manning was bad. That sentence was actually awkward to type. Manning struggled against the Ravens and he wasn’t much better Thursday against the Kansas City Chiefs. Against the Ravens, Manning was 0 for 4 on targets beyond 20 yards and he was 2 of 8 on targets of 10 yards or more. The Ravens’ secondary was barely tested.
When the secondary was tested, they were beat at least three times deep but Manning uncustomary missed on those throws. Had he connected, it would have drastically changed the views on both Manning and the Ravens’ secondary.
The Ravens will be tested by Raiders quarterback Derek Carr. Though he has an injury to his right hand, Carr has decent arm strength. Though he struggled with his deep accuracy, he was last in the league in PFF’s deep accuracy—behind the likes of Geno Smith and Blake Bortles—he was 5th in league with the number of times throwing the ball 20 or more yards downfield.
The Raiders should take some deep shots and continue to test the Ravens’ secondary—especially with rookie wide receiver Amari Cooper.
Moreover, the secondary is only effective as the pass rush…
The Suggs Effect
The loss of outside linebacker Terrell Suggs is big from a depth and leadership standpoint. There are varying opinions on whether or not the Ravens will miss his production, or lack thereof. Many people pointed to the fact that Suggs had no tackles and no sacks last week. I agree, he was barely noticeable last week until he was seen on camera with his injury.
I also agree that his presence will be more felt in the run game. He is exceptional, when he is discipline and not freelancing, when setting the edge. The numbers by PFF bear that out as Suggs was a top six performer against the run in both 2013 and 2014.
Suggs usually has gets his sacks in bunches, but he is a top five player when you account QB sack, hurries, and hits. There is more to affecting the passing game than just sacks. Suggs puts on the heat and defenses account for him on every play.
The reality is the Ravens are without Suggs and need to move forward. Defensive coordinator Dean Pees will scheme to put his pass rushers—Courtney Upshaw, Elvis Dumervil, Za’Darius Smith, and Jason Babin (if only Steven Means was healthy!)—so that they will have the best opportunity to succeed. Today, we will begin to see if that is a reality.
According to PFF, the Raiders allowed 14 combined pressure—sacks, hits, and hurries. That was tied for 7th in the league last week. In contrast, the Ravens, with Suggs, caused 18 pressures.
Unsung Player to Watch, aka the “Corey Graham 2012 Postseason Award”
In lieu of a prediction of the score of the game, I will pick a Raven player each week that I think will have an impact on the game. I won’t pick an obvious player (like Joe Flacco, Steve Smith, Terrell Suggs, etc.), but a player that flies a bit under the radar. Think of this as the “Corey Graham 2012 Postseason Award.” Who would have predicted that Graham would have been a postseason-player-of-the-game in Denver in 2012?
I am going with wide receiver Michael Campanaro. I think the Ravens will get him some increased looks in the passing game—he only had 11 snaps on offense last week. Campanaro may also be given the green light in the punt return game, Steve Smith notwithstanding. That being said, my pick the previous week usually comes through the following week. So, expect Gilmore to have a good day.
Ravens football is finally back. The Ravens square off against the Denver Broncos in a primetime matchup in the coveted late Sunday afternoon slot (this timeslot draws more viewers than any other timeslot—more than Sunday night, more than Monday night). The opening to a daunting 2015 season begins today in Denver.
The Ravens do not have the luxury of padding their win total as they did last year when they faced the very weak AFC South and NFC South. This year the Ravens face two of the tougher divisions in football in the AFC West and the NFC West. In addition, the team opens up the 2015 season with five road games within the first seven games, with two sets of back-to-back games on the West Coast—weeks one and two against the Broncos and Oakland Raiders, and weeks six and seven against the San Francisco 49ers and Arizona Cardinals. These four games bracket the other three games where the Ravens face all three AFC North divisional foes.
The first seven weeks of the season loom large for the Ravens. A 4-3 record would be an acceptable outcome, setting up the team for another playoff trip. A 5-2 record would go a long way in the team accomplishing their goal of securing one, if not two, home playoff games. The question is if the Ravens can steal one of these three games—at Denver, at Pittsburgh, or at Arizona. Even at that rate, the Ravens would need to beat the always difficult Bengals at home—something that eluded the Ravens last year—and beat the 49ers in San Francisco; neither of which are givens.
Aside from the schedule, the Ravens face other challenges. Training camp and the preseason offered no answers to the Ravens most pressing questions entering the 2015 season. Is the secondary fixed? Who will provide the complimentary skill set to wide receiver Steve Smith? How will the rush defense hold up with defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan replacing the departed Haloti Ngata? Who will emerge from returner extraordinaire (at least from 2012 through 2013) Jacoby Jones’ shadow?
As it stands today against the Broncos, the secondary remains a question mark due to injuries (again), rookie wide receiver Breshad Perriman is still injured, Jernigan will likely miss today’s game, and no one knows for certain who will return kicks (the guess here is that undrafted free agent running back Terrence Magee returns kickoffs and wide receiver Michael Campanaro returns punts). Who are the 2015 Ravens?
With these plotlines surely to be the focal point of many, I am intrigued by some other storylines that are going to play a big part in today’s game.
The old adage of “speed kills” could be what kills the Ravens this season; specifically, on offense. The lack of speed on the outside could make the Ravens easier to defend this year.
First, let’s be clear. Offensive speed is needed to get the attention of the opposing team’s defense. It draws the safeties further away from the line of scrimmage. This opens up space for the underneath passing routes. It opens up the running game. It allows for effective play-action, which in return, helps both the run and pass games. Speed stretches the field vertically.
An offense doesn’t necessarily need an elite Randy Moss-type receiver who has size, speed, and catching ability to be effective. Sometimes an offense needs to merely present the threat of speed to get a defense’s attention. The offense needs to have functional speed. In many ways, this was the main function of former Ravens wide receiver Torrey Smith. The threat of the home run from quarterback Joe Flacco to Smith opened so many other options for the Ravens offense.
From Chris Brown’s The Art of Smart Football, “…speed gives a vertical receiver a chance to get deep, but even if he does not actually get open, he still stretches the defense, thus opening up the entire field. Speed distorts defenses, forcing them to cover wider swaths of the field, exposing the weak defenders and the voids around them.”
This morning, Sunday August 30th, I joined Ken Zalis, Jamie Watson (@teeoffwithjamie), and Kyle Ottenheimer (@KOttenheimer) on PressBox's Fantasy and Reality Football Show. My appearance was in the first hour and we discussed the Raven’s uneven performance in last night’s preseason game against the Washington football team. We also discussed the return game, secondary issues, and the underwhelming wide receiver competition. We all agreed that the same questions that the Ravens entered training camp with have not been answered.
You can find the regular hosts of PressBox's Fantasy and Reality Football Show with Ken (@FansFantasy) and Reeta Hubbard (@the NFLchick) live each Sunday morning on PressBox Online from 10am to 12pm.
Usually, the third preseason game is the final dress rehearsal for the starters to establish themselves before the start of the regular season. The story of the 2015 Ravens season will not be written if things do not go well this evening, just like last week was not an indication of how the team will perform this year. We are talking about the preseason (said in my best Allen Iverson voice). I repeat, the preseason.
Moreover, this game against the Washington football team will not be your typical week three preseason game. Both teams have been hit by the injury-bug and will be without several key players.
Washington will be without two of their starting pass rushers in Junior Gallette (good riddance) and Ryan Kerrigan. In addition, quarterback Robert Griffin III will be held out of the game. Though, he may just be the backup quarterback anyway.
The Ravens will also be playing this game shorthanded. For the second straight week, the offensive line week will be without starters. This week it will be without left tackle Eugene Monroe and left guard Kelechi Osemele (Is Osemele’s injury becoming a concern? Is his injury history affecting contract negotiations between the team and him and Marshal Yanda?) The secondary will be without Lardarius Webb (what’s new) and now Rashaan Melvin, who has a soft-tissue injury.
Because of the litany of injuries, I am expecting another somewhat sloppy game. And, I am not sure how much one will be able to read into this game.
Since the first cut down is on Tuesday, rosters will be trimmed from 90 to 75 players , it will be interesting to watch how the team uses roster bubble players, both veteran and young players. How will the Ravens utilize players such as Cassius Vaughn, Quinton Pointer, Kapron Lewis-Moore, Christo Bilukidi, Ryan Jensen, Darren Waller (more on him later), Marlon Brown, Jeremy Butler, and DeAndre Carter? It could be a telling indication of where they stand as far as making the team.
Here are tonight’s other plotlines.
There is a reason that I write about football and not coach football. A coach might have found some redeeming quality or teachable moment from last weekend’s game. I would have said, “Burn the tape and let’s move on.”
This is the Reality Assessment, and reality is that the Ravens were horrendous on every level against the Philadelphia Eagles.
However, I am an educator, so most things in life can be used as teachable moments. Here are things that I have zeroed in on that I am sure have been, and will be, addressed at the UA Performance Center.
Preseason game number one is all about getting your feet wet. Whether it is a rookie or a veteran, game one is about getting acclimated, or re-acclimated, to NFL game conditions. You can expect jitters, communication issues, and even some confusion as 90 players are on the sideline versus the normal 46.
However, game two takes on a new level of urgency. Starters take games two and three more seriously (though not that seriously), and younger players are beginning to run out of time to make an impression on the decision makers. In addition, games two and three are when position battles start to become a little clearer.
With a relatively controversy-free set of practices with the Philadelphia Eagles this week, the Ravens get to see the Eagles’ up-tempo brand of football in a new setting. The Ravens will also face an actual starting caliber NFL quarterback in Sam Bradford. My Eagles’ friends are nervously hoping he survives without tearing another ACL.
Here is what I will be watching for tonight during the Ravens’ week two of preseason football.
An avid sports fan, and a passionate Ravens fan. However, I don't always wear the purple-shaded glasses.