Posted in Ravens Thoughts

If Baltimore Ravens find consistency, they will win the AFC North

By Chris Schisler

The Baltimore Ravens spent most of the season so far as the frontrunner in the AFC North. The Pittsburgh Steelers got off to a 1-3 start. The Cleveland Browns have been dealing with injuries and have been up and down. Their 5-5 record is proof of that. The Cincinnati Bengals have exceeded expectations but a couple of humbling losses has them back down to earth. It’s up for grabs in the AFC.

Which Baltimore Ravens team shows up?

It’s hard to know who the most trustworthy team is in the division. The Baltimore Ravens have a lot of their wins because of comebacks and miraculous moments. When they lost to the Miami Dolphins in Week 10, it showed how capable the Ravens were of laying an egg against lesser competition.

The Ravens have one constant. As long as they have Lamar Jackson they have a chance to win. Jackson is playing like an MVP and he’s the most important player in the entire division, maybe even in the NFL. The problem the Ravens have is that if Jackson is off by just a bit, the Ravens become a less powerful team. He’s the electricity and there is no backup generator.

The Ravens are so close to being an amazing team. Defensively the Ravens are solid in a lot of ways. The problem is they give up too many big plays. The big plays have haunted this team. It’s what squashed the comeback effort in Miami and what fueled the Raiders and Bengals victories over them. The Ravens can get a decent number of stops, but until they can be trusted not to have blown coverage down the field, or a missed tackle that springs a short pass into a long touchdown, the Ravens will be doing things the hard way.

The story of the Steelers:

The Steelers just tied with the Detroit Lions in an ugly game. Granted, the Steelers had to play the Lions without Ben Roethlisberger, but his absence showed how much is going wrong in Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh has gotten their wins in scrape by fashion. Many would tell you that the NFL officials propelled them unfairly against the Chicago Bears. The Steelers barely beat the Seattle Seahawks without Russell Wilson. While the Browns only put up 10 points against them, Pittsburgh struggled to get their 15 points on the board.

Defensively, the Steelers have a lot going for them. Games with the Steelers are good for betting the under. The Steelers haven’t scored more than 29 points in a game this season. Their opponents don’t light up the score either. If T.J. Watt gets healthy, the Steelers have a shot to keep winning with their defense.

The Steelers’ big conflict, in a nutshell, is that they average 19.7 points per game and their opponents average 20.6 points per game. The defense has to do the heavy lifting. Their offense finds little grooves here and there, but their overall output isn’t great. A battle with the Steelers is usually a race to 24 points. Get there first and you’re probably giving Pittsburgh a loss.

Can you trust the Browns or Bengals?

Baker Mayfield has been dealing with injuries and for the most part, playing through them. The Browns quarterback isn’t having the 2021 season Cleveland was hoping for though, which is something to be mindful of. He has 1,990 passing yards with nine touchdowns and four interceptions. The Browns have scored under 20 points in five games this season and just lost 45-7 to the New England Patriots.

Dealing with injuries to notable stars like Nick Chubb, Kareem Hunt, and Greedy Williams, the Browns have stayed in the thick of things. They’ve folded against good competition though, losing big to the Arizona Cardinals, and Patriots. They came up short against the Chiefs and botched a legitimate shot to take down Pittsburgh. The Browns are a tricky wild card. They have to be taken seriously, but they haven’t looked like world-beaters by any stretch of the imagination.

The Bengals are 5-4. There was a ton of buzz around the Bengals after they knocked the doors off the Ravens. Since then. the Bengals have lost to the New York Jets and then got torched by the up and down Browns.

Baltimore Ravens’ Bottom Line:

Every team has had its big moment. Every team has its moment as the frontrunner. If there was a team in the AFC North that had all their ducks in a row, that team would be in a one-horse race. In actuality, the AFC North is a battle between four teams that could show up hot or cold on any Sunday. That’s why getting it right is so crucial for the Baltimore Ravens. There is no time to waste.

The Ravens play the Browns after their battle with the Chicago Bears. Then they have the Steelers and a rematch against the Browns. It’s probably not going to be this easy, yet if the Ravens won the next four games they’d be 10-3 in a very comfortable situation. This opportunity is huge for Baltimore. The expectation has to be two wins out of the three consecutive AFC North battles.

NEXT POST: Baltimore Ravens vs. Chicago Bears: 4 predictions and a score

The bottom line is that any team in this division can walk away with the crown. The Ravens still have five divisional games left. If they win four of them, they probably win the division. It’s that simple. Baltimore must find consistency right away. The AFC North team that finds the answers they need to find wins division. The team that puts it all together wins. It’s that simple, and the Baltimore Ravens have got to get some work done.

Posted in Ravens Thoughts

Baltimore Ravens bye week went as well as it could

By Chris Schisler 

The Baltimore Ravens didn’t have a game in week 8 of the NFL season. Things went the way the purple and black wanted them to go while they were idle.

Baltimore Ravens got the results they wanted: 

The Cincinnati Bengals fell to the New York Jets. While they have the same amount of wins as the Ravens, they now have one more loss. Despite the head-to-head advantage, Joe Burrow and company dropped to second place in the division.

After the Bengals game, it seemed likely that the Bengals weren’t that good and the Ravens weren’t that bad. The Bengals leaned into that theory. While the real takeaway is that it is a week-to-week league and that anything can happen on NFL Sunday, seeing the Bengals falter is comforting for Baltimore.

The rest of the division (The Cleveland Browns and Pittsburgh Steelers) did battle in Ohio. Baker Mayfield player despite his shoulder injury, though Cleveland only put up 10 points. In a game that was as much of an offensive struggle as it was a defensive showdown, Pittsburgh prevailed 15-10.

The Ravens should take note that the Steelers have righted the ship and the murky waters are no longer flooding their cabin. Pittsburgh has won three straight games and is in a much more comfortable spot than they were at 1-3.

This was still the outcome that strategically works for Baltimore. The Browns are now 4-4. The Steelers are 4-3. Instead of the Browns inching closer to the top. A division with three five-w

in teams would have made this a different kind of a feel on Monday.

The Steelers and the Browns look like beatable foes: 

The Steelers don’t look like world-beaters. They have scored under 20 points in four games this season.

Their bout with Cleveland was arguably their best offensive performance. They only averaged 5.4 yards a play and went 4-13 on third-down conversion attempts. It really feels as if 24 points is usually enough to beat Ben Roethlisberger and company this year. That’s not a discomfort to a Ravens team picking up 26.7 points per game.

The Browns are a disappointment. A team that was supposed to climb into the elite class of the AFC has four losses and is sitting in fourth place. That’s a tough pill to swallow for the sexy preseason pick to win the AFC North.

The Ravens were handed humble pie against the Bengals. Things looked bad. The problems (that weren’t hard to find) felt like they could sink the Ravens’ season. The dark cloud of an embarrassing loss at home is starting to move away from M&T Bank stadium.

The fact is that there’s not a team in this division that doesn’t have issues. There’s no king-slaying team running a rampage through the division. There’s a Ravens team that is in first place despite a plethora of injuries. There’s the Bengals who just got too high on themselves and let a backup’s backup quarterback go for 400 yards in his game. There’s the Browns and the Steelers with four losses apiece.

The Bottom Line: 

Do the Ravens need to do better when they return to action against the Minnesota Vikings? Sure thing. They need to start winning the battle at the line of scrimmage offensively. On defense, they need to find what makes them tick and some consistency to go with that. But as the sun came up this morning, the Ravens were back in first place in the AFC North. Everything is still there for the taking.

NEXT POST: Baltimore Ravens: Top 10 positives at the bye

A bounce-back week with two games (Vikings on Sunday, Miami Dolphins on Thursday) is just what the doctor ordered. If the Ravens reclaim their confidence, they can still be the dangerous team we thought they were when they crushed Justin Herbert’s Los Angeles Chargers. A perfect bye week has resurfaced optimism in Baltimore.

Posted in Ravens Thoughts

John Harbaugh vs. Mike Tomlin: Who is the better coach

By Chris Schisler

John Harbaugh and Mike Tomlin are two of the best coaches in the NFL. They are both long-tenured coaches with a Super Bowl ring. They’re apt for comparison because they are the two head coaches of football’s best rivalry. The Baltimore Ravens and the Pittsburgh Steelers are both winning teams who have a long track record of continuity and respectable work in the NFL Draft. Comparing the two coaches is a completely fair exercise.

The big thing to point out here is that Harbaugh and Tomlin have fairly equal resumes. Tomlin has coached in two Super Bowls, while Harbaugh has only reached one. Still, Harbaugh has three more playoff wins than Tomlin and has reached the AFC Championship three times.

Harbaugh has gone 129-79 since being hired in 2008. Tomlin is 145-78-1 since being hired in 2007. The Steelers and the Ravens have been fairly neck and neck. Counting the postseason, the Ravens have played the Steelers 29 times since 2008. Baltimore has won 14 of those games. If you just go off wins, losses, and playoff records it’s about as even as it can get.

The other thing that makes this so challenging is that both coaches have a similar style of coaching. They’re player’s coaches. They form a strong relationship with their teams and their genuine enthusiasm goes a long way in building connections. Just about every player that has played under either of them will say that they are player’s coaches (other than infamously Bernard Pollard).

One advantage that Mike Tomlin has had is that he was a defensive coordinator, and he can get more involved from an X’s and O’s standpoint. While Harbaugh is more involved and on top of things, than it sometimes comes across, this is an area where Tomlin probably has the most confidence. If Tomlin had to call the defense, it would feel natural for him.

Harbaugh leans more heavily on his coordinators. It’s smooth when the right people are in place. Harbaugh has historically had a hard time picking offensive coordinators though. Even on the defensive side, Harbaugh’s loyalty to his staff can hurt him. Multiple offensive coordinators have over-stayed their welcome in Baltimore and Dean Pees was there way too long.

Both coaches do a good job of keeping the train on the tracks. Tomlin famously hasn’t had a losing season. Harbaugh has one losing mark blemishing his resume, though it felt inevitable in 2015 with all the injuries. I’d argue that Harbaugh does a better job of turning the tides and slowing down a major skid in a season.

Think about this past season. The Steelers were 1-4 to finish the regular season and then they lost to the Cleveland Browns in the postseason. After an 11-0 start where they were barely tested, things went downhill. The 11-0 record masked the Steelers’ problems and gave them a false sense of momentum. They got worse as the season progressed and scraped by on an easy schedule. Tomlin lost the pulse of his team.

Tomlin has had some turmoil that wasn’t his fault. The “Killer B’s” era with Antonio Brown and Le’veon Bell in Pittsburgh was probably always going to end the way it did. Tomlin’s weakness comes from the very fact that he’s such a player’s coach. He’s almost one of the guys, and he has a hard time reeling it in when his players get out of hand.

JuJu Smith-Schuster and Eric Ebron specifically went out of their way to be diva skilled position players. There were multiple spots where it was a distraction to the Steelers. Tomlin has had some very talented players that are hard to manage, but he creates a culture that allows them to be hard to deal with in the first place.

While Harbaugh’s message has gone stale at times, he’s continually found a way not to lose the locker room. While Tomlin comes off as the more rah-rah coach, Harbaugh is a better motivator and he provides more focus.

Tomlin’s style is a double-edged sword though. His strength as a coach is his passion and his willingness to buy into the tough and hard-nosed brand of Steelers football. He’s a perfect frontman and his core principles are the winning ones. You can say a lot of things about Tomlin, but there are few men in any profession more consistent than he is. Tomlin is a very authentic and driven man.

Tomlin has a slightly higher winning percentage than Harbaugh. He kind of should though if you think about it. Harbaugh spent most of his career with Joe Flacco as his quarterback. Make no mistake about it, Flacco is a franchise quarterback. Still, Tomlin had a huge advantage with Ben Roethlisberger in his prime.

Roethlisberger is going to Canton someday. Flacco almost certainly isn’t. In the years after the Super Bowl XLVII victory, Flacco was mostly pedestrian while Roethlisberger was putting out monster seasons. Both teams were incredibly consistent winners, but only one team had a quarterback destined for a gold jacket. That was so often the difference when the Ravens fell to the Steelers with a fairly comparable roster. Quarterback is the most important position and when you factor that in, Harbaugh and Tomlin’s records and results seem even closer.

Harbaugh’s top strength is adaptability. You thought I was going to start with the Lamar Jackson example but let’s stick in the Flacco era for a bit. In 2012, Harbaugh fired Cam Cameron. When he had to do it, he pulled the trigger. When Joe Flacco was ready to reach his professional peak, he told the new play-caller, Jim Caldwell, to let the ball fly.

While Flacco couldn’t repeat it, he had a majestic run to the Super Bowl. A team that had always relied upon defense and the run game was all the suddenly throwing their way to a Lombardi Trophy.

When it was almost time for the Flacco era to end, the Ravens preemptively drafted Lamar Jackson. When Jackson became the starter, Harbaugh had his team put out a brand of football that was completely different.

Everything centered on the run game and churning out long drives. In 2019, Baltimore had the most unique offense in the NFL The Ravens became very aggressive on fourth downs and played an analytics-based game. They went 14-2. Harbaugh took himself off the hot seat and won the AP NFL Coach of the Year award. The amount of successful change from Harbaugh was astounding.

Tomlin has never won the AP NFL Coach of the Year honor. He’s come very close. When the Steelers almost made the postseason without Ben Roethlisberger, Tomlin was certainly a candidate. That was some of Tomlin’s best work, but Harbaugh won the 2019 award. It is worth pointing out for the sake of this conversation that Tomlin was the youngest head coach to ever win a Super Bowl.

While Tomlin is less focused on analytics, he is a fantastic football strategist. Winning any game with Devlin Hodges as your quarterback is living proof of that fact. The fact that the Steelers have beaten the Ravens with Charlie Batch is proof of that fact. You can put his Steelers teams into a bad spot and he finds a way to be competitive. He’s smart and he has always had an abundance of will to win.

Verdict: Slight nod to John Harbaugh

The more diplomatic answer is that it is a dealer’s choice. Ravens fans are more likely to choose Harbaugh and Steelers fans are more likely to take Tomlin. Prefacing it with that, I’m going to go with John Harbaugh. While I don’t think you can go wrong here, I think Harbaugh is the coach I would hire in the hypothetical scenario where I ran an NFL team.

Here’s why I lean towards Harbaugh, other than the obvious bias of familiarity and the fact that this is a Ravens blog; I think Harbaugh is a perfect leader. Does the coach speak get old after a loss? Absolutely. I would actually argue that Tomlin gives the more entertaining press conferences, not that it really factors into the equation.

While Harbaugh is a player’s coach, he’s not really one of the guys. He’s the boss. He works with the players and the player-coach relationship is generally a healthy one. When things go south, he’s the conductor and his voice doesn’t get lost in the crowd. When things are good, he keeps the team mostly grounded. I think Harbaugh’s leadership is on a different level and that is why I ultimately give him the nod.

NEXT POST: Baltimore Ravens: 10 predictions for the preseason

These are clearly the two best coaches not named Bill Belichick in football. You can’t go wrong. I offered my analysis and opinion, but it really is a dealer’s choice here.

Posted in Hot Take of the Week

Ravens are still the class of the AFC North

By Ronald Toothe

There’s a shift currently taking place in the AFC North. It’s a shift that has brought with it an influx of incredible young talent to all four teams over the last few seasons.

In Cleveland, it started with Myles Garrett in 2017 and continued with the addition of franchise cornerstones like Baker Mayfield, Nick Chubb, and Denzel Ward.

In Cincinnati, second-year QB Joe Burrow will have his chance to wreak havoc on opposing defenses with his old college teammate Ja’Marr Chase for years to come.

Even in Pittsburgh, despite their old guard slowly leaving piece by piece, they’ve managed to stay strong by drafting new stars like TJ Watt, Chase Claypool, and Diontae Johnson.

While the balance of power going forward could be as fragile as it’s ever been, fear not, for the AFC North will still be the Ravens division to win for years to come.

Of all the other three teams’ additions to their rosters since 2017, Eric Decosta and company have been right there with them every step of the way. For as much as the Flock can be frustrated at times when a player like Miles Boykin or Jaylon Ferguson doesn’t provide the immediate boost, we’d like, the hits have far outweighed the misses.

Marlon Humphrey, Tyus Bowser, Chuck Clark, Lamar Jackson, Mark Andrews, DeShon Elliott, Bradley Bozeman, Marquise Brown, Patrick Queen, J.K. Dobbins. All of these players have been drafted in the last four seasons. This is crazy to think about given how integral each one has been to the Ravens’ success already.

Ravens fans already know that this team has numerous different standard-bearers in place for the future though. The question is, how do they stack up with the rest of the division going forward?

Cleveland rocks?

Pundits on television and in print media have been quick to say that the Browns will be the kings of the north for years to come following 2020. The only problem with that hot take, is that we’ve heard it for going on four years now.

Cleveland has certainly taken monumental steps forward over these last few years and does deserve much more respect than they’ve garnered in the past, but a playoff win against a broken down Ben Roethlisberger doesn’t make them instant Super Bowl contenders or divisional favorites.

It’s hard to argue the talent the Browns have accrued over the last few seasons. Nick Chubb is in the conversation of the best pure running back in the league, and Myles Garrett has shown that he’s probably the best defender in football not named Aaron Donald.

Baker Mayfield really began to show why the Browns took him first overall in 2018 after last Thanksgiving as well, putting together the best stretch of his pro career thus far. He only threw one interception during that span, indicating that his gunslinger approach may be a much more calculated one going forward.

Paper vs. reality

Even despite all of the “on paper” talent the Browns have though, the current Mayfield-led iteration of the team still holds a 1-4 record vs the Lamar Jackson-led Ravens. Both of their key wins last season (vs Tennessee, vs Pittsburgh in the playoffs) were almost blown after getting out to huge leads early on in the ballgame.

They also stubbed their toe against lesser teams like the Raiders and Jets during what was still a crucial playoff push at the time, games where elite teams get the job done. Going forward the Browns will likely be the biggest thorn in the Ravens side, but anyone who says it’s their division to win is doing so just for the sake of the potential “I told you so”.

From LSU to Cincinnati, the new Tiger Kings?

The Bengals have a whole lot of work still left to do and more additions to make, but make no mistake about it, they’re not as far off as one would initially think. Their 2021 draft was quietly among the best in the league as of now (which is easy to say while players are still in shorts and helmets of course).

The free agent acquisition of Trey Hendrickson to pair alongside Joseph Ossai from Texas could be one of the most overlooked pass rush duos in football, but will certainly help what’s been a rough defensive unit for the Bengals over the last few seasons.

The major key to their success going forward will be keeping QB Joe Burrow upright. They began focusing on this with the drafting of Jackson Carman out of Clemson (along with two others later in the draft: D’Ante Smith and Trey Hill), who will provide some much needed protection for the young signal caller.

Ja’Marr Chase, Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd could very well be the most well-rounded receiver group in the league down the line with a player like Burrow slinging the rock, they just need the time in the pocket to make it happen.

2021 likely isn’t the year the Bengals will be competing for a playoff position, but if Burrow is able to make it through the season and continue building what was already becoming great chemistry with the young guys around him, they’ll be far from the easy win on the schedule that we’ve come to know going forward.

Closing the Steel curtain on the old guard

Surprisingly enough, the team in the least enviable position in the AFC North going forward is the one that took home the divisional crown in 2020: the Steelers. Each AFC North team has their quarterback of the future, while Pittsburgh willingly signed up for another ride with a 39 year old coming off of total elbow reconstruction.

What was once one of the most feared offensive lines in football has become more and more a shell of itself over the last few seasons, with the biggest shifts coming this off-season. After the retiring of Maurkice Pouncey, and Alejandro Villanueva coming over to anchor the right side of the Ravens line, their current situation up front leaves much to be desired.

In an article for Trib Live, Chris Adamski writes,

“J.C. Hassenauer and B.J. Finney are options at center. Second-year player Kevin Dotson is penciled in as the new starter at left guard, and Zach Banner is expected to serve as the starting right tackle in 2021 despite never having started and finished an NFL game on the offensive line. Also, Chuks Okorafor is slated to take over for longtime starting left tackle Alejandro Villanueva, who signed with the rival Baltimore Ravens. And another rookie, tackle Dan Moore, was added via a fourth-round draft pick.”

Now, it may be unfair to completely write off the linemen they have coming in given that most of them haven’t had the chance to step up. However, given the consistency they’ve had and the chemistry they built in the process over the last decade, it’s hard to be confident that a brand new group like this can keep Ben healthy through an extended season.

Other issues for the Steelers

Not to mention, they spent this year’s first round pick on a heck of a running back from Alabama in Najee Harris, but if the offensive line is causing him to meet defenders at the line of scrimmage on a regular basis it may as well still be James Conner back there.

The defense will still be among the better units in football, but even that side of the ball has seen its fair share of losses. Bud Dupree chose to head for greener pastures in Tennessee, Mike Hilton the same to Cincinnati, and Steven Nelson was deemed a cap casualty and released. They didn’t address those holes until day three of the draft, so it’ll take a mighty effort from Watt, Heyward, and company to replicate their prior success.

Wrap up

Overall the AFC North is improving in a lot of ways, but the Ravens have managed to stay ahead of that curve every step of the way. We’ve got some exciting divisional match-ups to look forward to in the coming years, and probably a lot of Sundays spent on the edge of our seats as a result.

NEXT POST: The Ravens don;t need Julio Jones to make it work

It wasn’t too long ago that people considered the AFC North to be the true class of the NFL, and should the new young crop of talent across the board live up to their full potential, it won’t be long before that again becomes a reality.