Should the Ravens Already Extend John Brown?
Wide receiver John "Smokey" Brown is no longer a sleeper. He's full-fledged buzzing around NFL circles.
Brown torched the Steelers for 104 yards and a touchdown on two catches in the first half of Sunday's nationally televised game.
Simply put, that doesn't happen often to the Steelers at Heinz Field.
"The threat of a John Brown deep ball has changed Baltimore's offense immeasurably," NFL.com's Elliot Harrison wrote. "After Brown landed two receptions for 104 yards and a touchdown in the first half, Baltimore attacked the middle of Pittsburgh's defense with intermediate routes to its trio of hulky tight ends -- Mark Andrews, Nick Boyle and Maxx Williams -- extending second-half drives with chunk plays."
It didn't matter that Brown made just one more catch in Pittsburgh. The Steelers were constantly worried about getting burned again on another deep ball, and adjusted their defense as a result.
"Brown has emerged as the Ravens' most dangerous playmaker," Russell Street Report's Todd Karpovich wrote.
Brown was signed this offseason to a one-year $5 million deal, which is proving to be an amazing piece of business. However, Russell Street Report's Chad Racine believes his current contract is now posing a new problem for Baltimore.
Should the Ravens try to extend Brown's contract now?
"Brown has been great, as we've discussed, but it's only been four games," Racine wrote.
It does seem early to consider extending a player that has only played in Baltimore for a month's worth of regular-season games, but Brown has been that good. He has caught 15 passes for 338 yards and three scores. His 22.5 yards per catch currently ranks No. 3 in the NFL.
In fact, Brown has played so well that he was included in ESPN's Bill Barnwell's Quarter-Season Awards. Brown was named No. 2 in Barnwell's rankings for Comeback Player of the Year. He's one spot ahead of Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck (a three-time Pro Bowler), and trails only Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt (a three-time Defensive Player of the Year) – that's pretty illustrious company.
"Brown seemed on the road to stardom in Arizona after racking up 1,003 receiving yards as a sophomore in 2015," Barnwell wrote. "But the Pittsburg State product spent the next two years dealing with a cyst on his spine and struggles to avoid muscle injuries."
Indeed, that's the argument against committing to Brown after just four games; he doesn't have the best injury history. He hasn't played an entire season since his rookie year in 2014 with the Arizona Cardinals. Last year, Brown played in just 10 games for the Cardinals while reportedly battling the cyst on his spine, which can lead to extreme fatigue.
"I'm so happy for him because he's been through so much with all the diagnoses and things that have gone on with him the last two years," former Arizona Cardinals Head Coach and CBS analyst Bruce Arians said. "He was a superstar waiting to happen."
Now that Brown has shown his value in Baltimore, what kind of money can he expect to get? Barnwell theorized that "he should more than double that annual salary in 2019 if he keeps this up." Could the Ravens afford a $10 million contract like that? Remains to be seen.
"If they wait, Smokey may price himself out of Baltimore," Racine wrote.
That's another potential roadblock in this theoretical extension. If Brown plays at this level all year, he could get a bigger deal than the Ravens are willing to offer him currently. That could lessen his motivation to re-sign with Baltimore so early in the season.
Brown reportedly turned down a three-year deal from the Buffalo Bills in favor of joining the Ravens, which shows how confident he was in his ability to land a bigger deal down the line.
"Brown is betting on himself. So far, he looks to be winning," Racine wrote. "His win could be the Ravens' loss. I just know I'm glad Smokey is a Raven right now."
Wink Martindale's Defensive Coordinator Debut at Heinz Field Gets Rave Reviews
There are plenty of players who stood out in Baltimore's 26-14 victory over Pittsburgh. During his postgame news conference however, safety Eric Weddle was quick to heap praise on Defensive Coordinator Don "Wink" Martindale for the defense's effort.
"Wink was a step ahead the entire second half," Weddle said. "He was in rhythm. Unbelievable."
Head Coach John Harbaugh was clearly thinking along the same lines as Weddle, and gave Martindale a game ball in the Ravens' locker room after the game. Martindale's defenders all swarmed around him to celebrate.
After having the defense suffer such disappointing finishes at Heinz Field the past couple years, the Ravens changed the narrative with Martindale at the helm, holding the Steelers to just 47 yards and no points during the second half.
"Sunday, Martindale's tweaks allowed the Ravens to put pressure on [Steelers quarterback Ben] Roethlisberger down the stretch," PennLive's Aaron Kasinitz wrote. "Baltimore hit the quarterback just two times but forced him to release hurried throws or scamper out of the pocket on several occasions in the third and fourth quarters."
Schematically, Martindale made adjustments that seemed to tip the game in Baltimore's favor. This wasn't the first time Martindale has done that either, as the Ravens have yet to allow a touchdown in the second half this season, and over their past two games, the defense has shut out opponents after halftime.
Early on against Pittsburgh, Martindale seemed keen to have Weddle and safety Tony Jefferson come forward to try and get to Roethlisberger. Though Weddle and Jefferson both managed to get close to the Steelers quarterback, it left the middle of the defense exposed. Roethlisberger found tight ends Vance McDonald and Jesse James in the open space.
That happened a lot less in the second half, and the results speak for themselves. After combining for six catches for 85 yards in the first half, McDonald and James didn't haul in a single pass after halftime.
"Don Martindale's ability to adjust and shut down opposing offenses has been remarkable," Baltimore Beatdown's Logan Levy wrote.
Martindale also got a major decision right when he opted to have cornerback Marlon Humphrey shadow Pittsburgh's star wide receiver Antonio Brown for chunks of the game.
When the Ravens matched up with the Steelers at Heinz Field last year, Brown was virtually unstoppable, finishing with 213 yards. Baltimore's strategy that day was to not have any one cornerback cover Brown, and instead base it off of where he lined up on the field.
Despite how well Brown did that day, he struggled to make an impact when it was Humphrey's turn to guard him. Fast-forward to 2018 and Humphrey spent the majority of his time in Pittsburgh battling Brown.
"Martindale learned from that experience and asked Humphrey to stick with Brown for much of Sunday's game," The Baltimore Sun's Childs Walker wrote. "Brown made a terrific 26-yard touchdown catch late in the second quarter, despite tight coverage from the second-year cornerback. That's what great players do. But other than that one flash, Humphrey limited the best receiver in the world to four underneath catches, only one of them in the second half."
Anthony Levine Sr. Leaves His Mark
Safety Anthony Levine Sr. went into Sunday's rivalry game against Pittsburgh with the goal of making a big impact.
Having been a Raven since 2012, Levine felt he hadn't done that against the Steelers yet. That certainly changed on Sunday when he picked off Roethlisberger in the fourth quarter to help seal the game.
"It's crazy because I was telling [safety] Chuck [Clark] earlier, 'Man, I've been here seven years now, and I haven't made a big play in this rivalry, and I want to make a play in this rivalry,'" Levine told The Baltimore Sun's Edward Lee. "That's what we live for — things like that, this type of game. So I was happy that I made a play and made a mark in this rivalry."
To Lee, Levine's interception wasn't just a big play within the Pittsburgh game, writing "Considering the opponent, setting and circumstances, Levine's interception might have been as pivotal as any the defensive player has made in recent memory."
Though his interception was the most memorable part of Levine's performance, Russell Street Report's Ken McKusick noted that he played well throughout the game.
"Levine wrote a new chapter in the Ravens/Steelers rivalry Sunday night by doing the most visible things to differentiate himself from the inside linebacker he replaces in the Ravens dime defense," McKusick wrote.
Levine seemed to get better as the game wore on, coming up with three drive-ending pass breakups over eight plays during the fourth quarter.
McKusick pointed out that Sunday's game was always going to feature more dime packages because of the various weapons Pittsburgh has in its passing game.
That passing game was far less effective with Levine on the field. According to McKusick, the defense allowed 217 yards on 32 plays (6.8 yards per play) when Levine wasn't on the field. During Levine's 26 defensive snaps, the Ravens gave up just 68 yards (2.6 yards per play).
"Levine separated himself from the other ILBs by understanding the play behind him and being able to effectively shut the passing window in each case," McKusick wrote.
Levine's performance also led to being included in Pro Football Focus' Gordon McGuinness' Week 4 NFL Team of the Week. He scored a PFF rating of 93.9, which was the highest of any defender on the team.
Le'Veon Bell Says He'll Return in Time to Face Ravens
The Ravens may have to contend with three-time Pro Bowl running back Le'Veon Bell the next time they play the Steelers.
A source told ESPN's Jeremy Fowler that Bell, who has been holding out this season because he does not want to sign Pittsburgh's one-year franchise tender, plans to return to the Steelers in the Week 7-8 timeframe. The Steelers make their annual regular-season trip to Baltimore in Week 9.
"The Steelers are on a bye in Week 7," Fowler wrote. "Bell plans to be ready for the Week 8 matchup with the Cleveland Browns on Oct. 28 in Pittsburgh and will decide how much practice time he needs accordingly, a source said."
Though that is Bell's reported timetable, there's a chance he won't have the opportunity to return to Pittsburgh, as the organization is reportedly still fielding trade offers for him.
"Bell's plan to report later this month would not dissuade the Steelers from making a trade that made sense, league sources told ESPN's Adam Schefter," Fowler wrote.
Despite how drawn out this process has become, Bell still apparently hopes that it will be resolved with him signing a long-term contract in Pittsburgh. In fact, he still wants to retire as a Steeler.
"I could be naïve or hopeful, but at the end of the day I feel like that's what's going to happen," Bell said about re-signing with the Steelers. "I don't think they really want me gone. That could be me being prideful. But I'm still holding out hope."
The Steelers missed Bell this past Sunday against the Ravens. Pittsburgh rushed for 19 yards, though lead running back James Conner was given just nine opportunities to run the ball.
In two games last year against the Ravens, Bell rushed for 192 yards on 48 carries. He also made 13 catches for 119 yards.
- Former Ravens safety Ed Reed and former Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward, major rivals during their playing days, did the Cover 2 segment together for Sunday Night Football's pregame show. And yes, it is a little odd to see the two casually hanging out during a leisurely drive through Pittsburgh.
- CBS Sports' John Breech gave the Ravens an A- in his weekly NFL Grades article. "The Ravens held the Steelers to just 19 yards rushing, marking the first time since 2000 that they held a team under 20 rushing yards," Breech wrote.
- Punter Sam Koch was also included in PFF's McGuinness' Week 4 NFL Team of the Week. "Joe Flacco and the Ravens offense got a lot of the credit, but punter Sam Koch was key too, putting the Steelers offense in tough positions," McGuinness wrote. "Three of his four punts landed inside the Pittsburgh 20-yard line and his punts yielded just three return yards."
- Cornerback Brandon Carr was not included in PFF's Team of the Week, but he did get highlighted in the site's Week 4 Standouts on Defense. He scored a PFF grade of 85.1. "The veteran corner had his second highest-graded game in the past five seasons Sunday night against the Steelers," Brent Rollins wrote. "He allowed only two receptions on five targets for 16 yards and a 48.8 passer rating to go along with two pass break-ups. On the season, he has only allowed 12 completions on 23 targets for 146 yards and a 53.9 passer rating."
- The Athletic's Michael Lombardi is buying into the narrative "Lamar Jackson is motivating Joe Flacco to play better," by including that as one of his main takeaways from the quarter-season mark. "By committing such a high asset to a quarterback, the Ravens got the full attention of starter Joe Flacco," Lombardi wrote. "As a result, he has played much better, and if he continues at this pace, the Ravens are a legitimate threat in the AFC."
- A whole lot of people tuned in to watch Sunday Night Football this week.