Ravens' Playoff Picture Actually Improves, and Worsens, During Week Off
How is this possible?
Well, the Ravens are now just one game back from the second wild-card spot. Before its bye week, Baltimore was two games back. The improvement came because Tyrod Taylor and the Buffalo Bills (5-4) were soundly beaten, 47-10, by the New Orleans Saints (7-2).
But things got worse in the division as the Pittsburgh Steelers (7-2) pulled out a 20-17 win over the Indianapolis Colts (3-7) to extend their lead over the Ravens to three games. Additionally, two other teams in contention for a wild-card spot also pulled out victories.
ESPN's Power Football Index say the Ravens' chances of advancing to the playoffs are now at 50.5 percent. A 50-50 shot? Not bad.
"Part of that is due to a bright outlook down the stretch -- the Ravens are favored in five of their final [seven] games of the season," the website wrote.
at Green Bay
Packers by 0.6
Ravens by 4.4
Ravens by 1.9
Steelers by 8.1
Ravens by 6.6
Ravens by 14.1
Ravens by 6.5
Moving forward, keep an eye on four other teams that are currently Baltimore's biggest threats for the sixth and final wild-card spot: Bills (5-4), Miami Dolphins (4-4), Oakland Raiders (4-5) and New York Jets (4-6). The Dolphins take on the Carolina Panthers (6-3) on Monday Night Football at 8:30 p.m., at which point Ravens fans will become Panthers fans.
"The Ravens have far better playoff odds than the AFC's other four-win teams because they've played far better than the AFC's other four-win teams," wrote ESPN's Aaron Schatz. "The offense is lousy, 24th in the league, but the Ravens are No. 2 in defense and No. 3 in special teams. They also play four of their final seven games at home."
None of this matters, however, if the Ravens don't take care of business. The biggest question facing the team isn't what its opponents are doing. It's whether it can turn its offense around and get hot …
More Attack, Less Checkdowns on Offense ... and the Danny Woodhead Effect
Quarterback Joe Flacco said before the break that he's ready to let loose in the passing game.
Flacco's passes travel at the NFL's lowest average of 6.1 yards in the air, according to ESPN, and his 21 throws of 20 or more yards rank 28th in the league. The overall passing game is ranked last with 165 yards per game.
"Joe Flacco is quarterbacking the most conservative offense in the NFL by nearly every statistical measure," writes ESPN. "But the Baltimore Ravens have reached the point where they need to change that philosophy, if Flacco has any say about it. During Baltimore's bye, Flacco sounded like a quarterback who has had enough of the checkdown, checkdown, checkdown game plan."
According to former Ravens tight end Dennis Pitta, one reason for so many checkdowns is a conservative philosophy.
"Right now, Joe has one read and then he's got to check it down if it's not there," Pitta told WBAL Radio. "That's really the offense they have set up for him. It's difficult to play quarterback under those circumstances."
It's surprising to see the deep passing game struggling considering the personnel on offense. Flacco still has one of the strongest arms in the league and has speedsters Mike Wallace, Jeremy Maclin and Breshad Perriman.
"Winning football has meant letting Flacco throw the ball deep," ESPN wrote. "When Baltimore reached the playoffs in Flacco's first five seasons, he averaged over 8.7 yards in pass attempt distance. In the past three years (which includes the non-playoff seasons of 2015 and 2016), Flacco has averaged 7.1 yards or fewer on his passes."
"Until they can hit on a couple of big plays downfield every game, the Ravens won’t consistently threaten anybody offensively," added The Baltimore Sun's Jeff Zrebiec. "Every drive, every first down will continue to be a grind that takes much out of the entire team and leaves it with little margin for error. Flacco needs to start connecting on some big plays. It would lift the entire team. There's enough talent in place on offense to do it."
As the Ravens continue to try to push the ball down the field, WNST's Luke Jones pointed out that Flacco may be more motivated to checkdown after the bye with the expected return of running back Danny Woodhead.
When healthy, Woodhead is capable of making defenders miss, so short passes to him out of the backfield can end up going for more yards.
“[B]ut it’s fair to wonder if his presence could be counterproductive to an offense needing to be more aggressive throwing the ball down the field," Jones wrote. "It's great to have more options, but the Ravens will need much more than Woodhead's presence to make meaningful improvement on the offensive side of the ball."
Green Bay Packers Lose Two Running Backs Sunday
The Ravens' next opponent, the Green Bay Packers, have sustained even more significant injuries a week ahead of their scheduled matchup at Lambeau Field Sunday.
The Packers' 23-16 win over the Chicago Bears came at a cost, as rookie running back Aaron Jones left Sunday's game with a knee injury and never returned. Then, Ty Montgomery, who began the season as the starting running back but lost the job to Jones, was ruled out for the game after sustaining a rib injury.
Plus, quarterback Brett Hundley, who is filling in for starter Aaron Rodgers (shoulder, IR) pulled a hamstring. Hundley indicated he will be fine going forward.
The Ravens will surely monitor all three on the injury report this week.
After sustaining so many significant injuries, it's not surprising to see Vegas make the Ravens 2.5-point favorites despite never winning in Green Bay in franchise history. [Note: the ESPN chart that favors the Packers in the chart above is different from Vegas' favorites. They independently came up with their numbers. Also, the ESPN chart was created before the Packers' injuries.]
Time to Unleash Tyus Bowser and Tim Williams
The Ravens used second and third-round picks on two pass rushers, Tyus Bowser and Tim Williams, hoping they'd make life more uncomfortable for opposing quarterbacks.
Through nine games, Baltimore has 22 sacks this season. That's certainly not bad; it ranks 16th in the league. But the defense could use a lot more, which means it might be time to unleash the pair of rookies, now that Williams is healthy and both have had time to become accustomed to NFL life.
"Since a standout Week 2 performance in which he intercepted a pass and collected a sack, however, Bowser has played a total of 54 defensive snaps in seven games," wrote Jones. "With the Ravens still searching for more pass-rushing production off the edges, the Houston product and fellow rookie Tim Williams need to be more in the mix down the stretch."
Linebackers Coach Wink Martindale said last week that Bowser is going to be a "star" and Harbaugh said he's earned more snaps.
As for Williams, he's been nursing a hamstring injury but returned to practice before the bye and seems primed to get back into the lineup.
"Assuming Williams is completely over hamstring and groin injuries after the bye, it's time to see what he could do as a situational pass rusher for 12 to 15 snaps a game," wrote Zrebiec.
Greg Roman May Be Ravens' MVP
When we talk about naming an MVP of a team, we're usually talking about a player. Thus, the "P" in MVP.
But if you ask ESPN, a Ravens coach is actually the team's most valuable "Person" at midseason. It's hard to argue that point, as Greg Roman has been the man behind Baltimore's new run scheme that has transformed the offense from last year's 28th-ranked rushing attack to this year's eighth best.
"Despite a series of tough injuries and a lack of additional resources, Roman has turned one of the league's worst rushing attacks into one of the NFL's best," wrote ESPN.
Roman lost two starting guards in Marshal Yanda and Alex Lewis to injury for the season. He also lost running back Kenneth Dixon for the year, and Danny Woodhead and Terrance West for large chunks.
"Somehow, the Ravens are on pace for their second-highest rushing total in a season since 2009 by relying on [Alex] Collins, who was cut by the Seattle Seahawks at the end of the preseason, and going with James Hurst (who had never lined up at guard previously) and Matt Skura (a practice squad player a year ago) on the interior," writes ESPN.
Philadelphia Signs Timmy Jernigan to Four-Year Extension
Defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan has done well for himself in Philadelphia after being traded there in April, and he's being rewarded handsomely for it.
Jernigan reportedly signed a four-year, $48 million deal, with $26 million guaranteed, last week with the Eagles.
The Ravens traded Jernigan, a 2014 second-round draft pick, to move up 25 spots in the third round of the 2017 draft. He has just 1.5 sacks in nine games and leads the Eagles with seven tackles for a loss.
"Jernigan is off to a good start in Philadelphia, but who predicted him getting [that deal]?" asked Jones. "[He] ranks 16th among qualified interior defensive linemen by PFF and has flourished playing next to Pro Bowl defensive tackle Fletcher Cox, but I'd still be leery of paying him that much, especially considering how badly he faded down the stretch in his final season with the Ravens.
"I suppose it's a risk the Eagles can take when having one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL playing on a rookie contract."
By the way, the Eagles signed another one of the Ravens' former defenders in linebacker Dannell Ellerbe, who started for Baltimore throughout the 2012 Super Bowl run.