Banged-Up Ravens Entering Crucial Stretch of Season
The second week of the NFL season concluded last night, so it's odd to think about the Ravens already entering a stretch of games that could influence where the team ends up in December. That is Baltimore's current situation, though, according to The Athletic's Jeff Zrebiec.
"From the second their schedule came out in mid-April, the Ravens understood that a strong start was imperative in their bid to get back to the playoffs for the first time since 2014," Zrebiec wrote. "That appears to be the case even more now."
Zrebiec believes this because the Ravens' final five games appear to be trickier than previously expected considering how some of those teams have started the 2018 season. In December, the Ravens play the Atlanta Falcons, Kansas City Chiefs, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Los Angeles Chargers, and Cleveland Browns.
Tampa Bay and Kansas City have both started the season with back-to-back wins. Not many pundits expected the Buccaneers to be contenders, but with FitzMagic in the air, they appear to be better than anticipated. The Chiefs have also enjoyed a bright start, particularly second-year quarterback Patrick Mahomes, who became the first quarterback with 10 touchdown passes in the first two games of a season.
Atlanta and Los Angeles are each 1-1, but have the look of teams that will contend for division titles. Cleveland is 0-1-1, but tied the Steelers and could've easily beaten New Orleans on the road in Week 2 if their kicker Zane Gonzalez, who was released yesterday, converted a few makeable kicks.
Baltimore's next four games are home against the Denver Broncos, and then away to the Pittsburgh Steelers, Cleveland Browns and Tennessee Titans. Denver is the lone undefeated team of the bunch, but Zrebiec still thinks the Ravens are in no position to drop multiple games.
"The Ravens need to start banking wins now to give themselves some margin of error in December," Zrebiec wrote. "This current stretch comes at a time where injuries are starting to take a toll."
Indeed, much of the narrative throughout the preseason was how fortunate the Ravens were in avoiding injuries. Unfortunately, that good luck appears to be drying up.
The most notable injury is inside linebacker C.J. Mosley, who suffered a bruised knee. A timetable for his return has not been given, but the Ravens re-signed Albert McClellan to give the position group depth.
"McClellan will bring leadership to a position that is now lacking a veteran presence," Baltimore Beatdown's Logan Levy wrote.
To make room for McClellan on the roster, the Ravens placed cornerback Maurice Canady (thigh), on injured reserve. It's a decision Levy called "a surprise," and may mean that "Mosley's injury is not considered long-term, but this move could indicate he will miss a couple of games."
Tight end Hayden Hurst and defensive tackle Willie Henry will also not practice this week, meaning they'll miss Sunday's game. It's simply a lot of injuries that have begun to rack up, which leaves Zrebiec concerned with how the team will cope.
"Going into Pittsburgh potentially without Hurst, Henry, Mosley and top cornerback Jimmy Smith, who is set the serve the third game of a season-opening four-game suspension, certainly isn't the best recipe for getting a road win against a division rival," Zrebiec wrote.
Before the Ravens face Pittsburgh, though, they'll host Denver. The Broncos boast a vicious pass rush, led by outside linebackers Von Miller and rookie Bradley Chubb. Miller, a six-time Pro Bowler and former Super Bowl MVP, is off to a fast start in 2018 with four sacks.
That means the Ravens could really use a strong performance from left tackle Ronnie Stanley. The problem is, there are some injury concerns with Stanley too, who was unable to finish Thursday's game.
Head Coach John Harbaugh referred to Stanley as "fine," on Monday, though his health, along with many others, will need to be monitored throughout the week.
"Miller moves around and rushes from a few spots, but he'll almost certainly spend a good portion of the afternoon across from Stanley," Zrebiec wrote. "That, of course, is assuming Stanley plays. At the start of a potentially defining stretch for their season, the Ravens badly need him to."
Players That Need to Step up in C.J. Mosley's Absence
Since a clear timetable hasn't been made public for when Mosley will be able to play, the Ravens have a massive hole to fill. Mosley is, after all, possibly the most irreplaceable guy on the defense.
Though it'll be tough, Ebony Bird's Richard Bradshaw has identified a few Ravens that could help minimize the loss.
"Everyone is holding their breath and remaining hopeful that C.J. Mosley will be returning to the line-up sooner rather than later," Bradshaw wrote. "We all know how instrumental he is to this team and losing him is absolutely brutal. But until he comes back, the Ravens need someone to step up."
S Tony Jefferson: Bradshaw thinks Jefferson could help offset the loss of Mosley in the run defense. The Ravens run defense did OK in Cincinnati, with the Bengals averaging 3.9 yards per carry. That's definitely a number the Ravens would like to see go down against Denver though, and Bradshaw thinks Jefferson, who leads the team with 13 tackles, could be the key to that happening.
"The Ravens need Jefferson to perform at a high-level in the worst way," Bradshaw wrote. "His run-stopping prowess and perhaps some play-making ability would be a major boon for the defense."
LB Kenny Young: This is an obvious selection as Young is expected to take over Mosley's place in the starting lineup this Sunday. A rookie fourth-round selection from UCLA, Young has impressed in his first two NFL games. He has 12 tackles, which is second most on the team, as well as a sack.
Against Cincinnati, The Baltimore Sun's Childs Walker was impressed with how Young was "comfortable tracking receivers in open space, showing off the mobility that was his calling card as a prospect."
"Ideally, Young would spend the season sharing duties with Onwuasor while Mosley serves as the team's rock in the middle," Walker wrote. "But the Ravens have to be pleased that in a draft dominated by offense, they added a quality player at their greatest position of need on defense."
OLB Matthew Judon: Bradshaw believes an improved pass rush would help offset Mosley's absence, and Judon picking up his play would certainly help with that. A lot is expected of Judon this season, and he has four tackles and just one for a loss. Against Cincinnati, Pro Football Focus gave him a -1.8 score.
But Judon, who is in his third NFL season, didn't get a sack until Week 6 last season and finished with eight. He ended up being one of the most efficient pass-rushers in the league in 2017.
"He won't be a tackling machine, but he can certainly set the edge and make the defense better from his play alone," Bradshaw wrote. "Of all the guys on this list, Judon might legitimately be the most crucial, and he isn't in a position that would support the middle of the field."
S Eric Weddle: Bradshaw actually didn't include Weddle in his article, but with the 33-year-old set to take over Mosley's duty of relaying the play calls to the rest of the defense, it's hard to not mention him. Weddle performed this job previously during his time with the Chargers, and though it's more common for linebackers to have this role, he appears more than ready to do it.
"There are few voices in the Ravens' locker room as distinctive or distinguished as Weddle's," Walker wrote. "Which is a good thing on game days."
More Opportunities for Tim Williams and Tyus Bowser
After not managing to sack Cincinnati quarterback Andy Dalton on Thursday, some questions have arisen about the team's pass rush. Russell Street Report's Todd Karpovich felt the defense faced many struggles on Thursday night, but "some of those challenges can be directly linked to the Ravens' almost non-existent pass rush that allowed Dalton to pick them apart."
It was a frustrating night for the outside linebackers that, after a strong preseason, many pundits felt could be one of the defense's greatest position groups in 2018.
In terms of the snaps breakdown, Za'Darius Smith was on the field the most with 54 plays. Terrell Suggs and Judon each played 46 snaps, while Tim Williams was on the field for 10. Tyus Bowser rounded out the group with nine.
"Considering the overall lack of pressure generated against the Bengals, I'd like to have seen Tim Williams and Tyus Bowser get more playing time than their combined 19 defensive snaps, especially after both played well in Week 1," Jones wrote.
If the starters struggle to get pressure on Denver quarterback Case Keenum, there's a chance Jones could get his wish and see Williams and Bowser get more opportunities.
Williams in particular looks primed to take on a bigger role. He was one of Baltimore's most improved player during the preseason, and continued that into the regular season when he recorded his first NFL sack. Williams didn't make as much of an impact Thursday by finishing with two tackles, but Pro Football Focus gave him a 0.2 score, which was a higher mark than both Smith and Judon.
Bowser had one tackle against Cincinnati, and was given a -0.3 score by PFF, which matched Smith's rating and was ahead of Judon's mark.
It should also be noted that not only did Williams and Bowser do well in Week 1, but the players higher up the depth chart did too. Suggs, Judon and Smith combined for eight tackles, including two sacks, in a performance that was cut short because of Baltimore's big lead.
If that trio regains their Week 1 form, Williams and Bowser may have to continue to wait their turn.
Joe Flacco Providing More Explosiveness in 2018
One question that PennLive's Aaron Kasinitz has posed entering the Denver game is "Can Flacco provide more explosiveness in 2018?"
It looks as if the answer to that question is yes. Last season, Flacco completed just 28 passes over 20 yards. Through two weeks in 2018, Flacco has nine completions of more than 20 yards. That puts him on pace for 72 big play completions for the entire season, which is the same amount New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees had when he led the NFL in that statistic in 2017.
Yes, it is far too early to be making end of season projections, but it's undeniable that this part of Flacco's game looks better.
"Signs exist that suggest he's in store for improvement in 2018," Kasinitz wrote. "He's been healthy and seems to be clicking with deep threat John Brown."
The presence of Brown has also certainly helped. He has three of those catches of over 20 yards. Incorporating running back Alex Collins into the passing game more has helped, too, as he has two of these big play receptions.
One of the main stats that was used to show Flacco's struggles last season was his 5.72 yards per attempt, which ranked last in the NFL. Thus far in 2018, Flacco is averaging 6.88 yards per attempt, which is No. 22 in the league. Last season, 6.88 yards per attempt would've ranked No. 19.
Though there have been encouraging signs about Flacco's explosiveness through two games, Kasinitz still needs to see more.
"After regressing a bit in Week 2, he'll need to prove that he can make plays down the field against strong defenses over the next few weeks," Kasinitz wrote.
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