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Ravens under the microscope: Best case, worst case for LB Za'Darius Smith

Ravens under the microscope: Best case, worst case for LB Za'Darius Smith

As we countdown to training camp, Clifton Brown and Bo Smolka will take turns putting 25 key Ravens under the microscope this month.

They’ll speculate on a best-case, worst-case scenario for at least one player every day. They’ll begin with players looking to carve out a role, or a roster spot. They’ll end with the Ravens’ most important players, concluding with quarterback Joe Flacco on July 25.

UNDER THE MICROSCOPE – Za'Darius Smith, second-year outside linebacker

Best-case scenario:

Smith is a starter and racks up double-digit sack totals

Why it could happen:

Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil are both on the high side of 30 and returning from injuries. Suggs turns 34 in October and is coming off his second major Achilles injury. Dumervil is 32 and had offseason foot surgery. Courtney Upshaw, who started 15 games last year, is out of the picture after signing with the Falcons as a free agent. That could leave the door open for Smith to assume a larger role. The Ravens have big plans for him as a pass-rusher. Smith showed flashed last year, with 5 1/2 sacks, including a pair of sacks in two games. And just as the Ravens did with the versatile Pernell McPhee, defensive coordinator Dean Pees will find ways to get effective pass rushers on the field. If Smith proves to be that, he'll play a lot.

Worst-case scenario:

Smith has a limited, situational role.

Why it could happen:

If they are healthy, Suggs and Dumervil will once again line up outside in pass-rushing situations. The Ravens drafted two outside linebackers in Kamalei Correa and Matt Judon, though Correa is getting a long look as an inside backer as well. If Smith doesn't prove to be the edge-setter against the run that Upshaw was, someone else could take that role. And if a healthy Dumervil and Suggs take command in obvious passing situations, Smith's role could be limited.

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Ravens defense steals the show in big win over Texans

Ravens defense steals the show in big win over Texans

BALTIMORE — For the first time all season, the Ravens defense, not the offense, had to carry the team’s weight. 

With the game tied at zero through the first quarter, and after a rare Justin Tucker missed field goal, the Ravens’ defense was forced to hold the fort long enough for the offense to get going. And once the offense found its stride, the defense didn’t let up. 

The Ravens defense held MVP-candidate Deshaun Watson at bay all afternoon long en route to another 30-point win, a 41-7 romp, at M&T Bank Stadium over the Texans. 

“I feel like we’re hitting our stride, especially with the defensive side of the ball,” defensive tackle Chris Wormley said. “The offense has been playing well all season and we’re finally clicking on all levels. Today felt pretty good being the side of the ball that got us going.”

Baltimore finished with a season-high seven sacks and had 10 quarterback hits on Watson. For the entirety of the afternoon, the Ravens kept Watson in the pocket and unable to throw downfield with any consistency. The end result was the best defensive performance of the season. 

“Just try to contain him, keep him in that cage,” Tyus Bowser said of the gameplan. “Just try to get to him as best you can. They have a great front line, and we did very well as far as in the secondary of making him hold the ball. When that happens, we’ve got to do our job on the front line and try to get to him and we did that well.”

Bowser finished with two sacks, as did Matthew Judon. The sacks kept the Texans offense, which entered ranked eighth in the NFL with 26.4 points per game, down to just seven — the touchdown came when the Texans trailed 34-0.

Watson threw for just 169 yards on 18-of-29 passing with an interception. Houston had just 232 yards of total offense and possessed the ball for just 23:41 of game time. 

But the most impressive part of the day was the pass-rush for the Ravens, who entered with just 16 sacks on the season. 

“It was part of the plan,” Wormley said. “We worked it all week and we stuck to it. No one was selfish and trying to do their own thing and it worked out pretty well for us.”

Once the Ravens offense, which scored on its last seven possessions  — drives that didn’t end the half or the game — got going, the Ravens defense didn’t let up, either. 

Houston turned the ball over twice, punted three times and turned it over on downs three times throughout the game. The other two drives ended in a missed field goal and a touchdown. 

The way the win happened was, admittedly, a bit shocking for the Ravens, which had to slow down DeAndre Hopkins and Watson, one of the NFL’s best quarterback-wide receiver combos. Hopkins finished with just 80 yards on seven catches and the Ravens dominated one of the NFL's best teams from start to finish.

“You just go out there and play the best ball that you can,” Earl Thomas said. “Today was a little surprising, I hope nobody on the team gets offended, but I didn’t think we was going to do them like that. Just take it one game at a time and keep chopping wood.”

With the Ravens defense seemingly having turned a corner, the Ravens can now seriously be discussed as one of the NFL’s elite teams — if they weren’t already. 

It’s a start contrast from where the defense was after the fourth game of the season, a 40-25 loss to the Browns where the defense couldn’t get out of its own way. The Ravens fell to 2-2 and vowed to fix the communication errors which plagued the team for the first quarter of the season. 

That loss to Cleveland on Sept. 29 was the team’s last loss.

“Wink (defensive coordinator Don Martindale) told us at the beginning of the week that this defense is 40 percent different than it was at the beginning of the season,” Wormley said. “So it just goes to show that our plan works, no matter who is in it.”

With an injury to Michael Pierce, the Ravens relied upon Domata Peko and Justin Ellis, two defensive linemen who weren’t in the organization a week ago, to play crucial defensive snaps. 

The Texans rushed for 6.1 yards a carry, but with the seven sacks, they were forced to play behind the chains for a majority of the day. 

“It’s just what we do,” Brandon Williams said. “It’s what we hang our hats on — next man up. We've said it from the very beginning. Look, people get hurt, you’ve seen it. But, other people are coming in and balling out. We love to see that.”

In three of the last four weeks, the Ravens have now earned victories over Russell Wilson, Tom Brady and Deshaun Watson. In none of those weeks have either quarterbacks scored more than 20 points against the Ravens. 

While the offense hung 41 points, with a quarterback in Lamar Jackson seemingly gaining more MVP hype each day, Sunday was about the defense. 

And while it may seem that the offense is the reason that has made the Ravens tick this season, it’s the defense which the Ravens will need most down the stretch. If Sunday is any indication, they’re going to be one of the toughest outs in the NFL.

“Maybe there’s no weak links? I don’t know,” Wormley said with a smile. “We just talked about the offense started a little slow today, but our defense picked it up. When we’re beating these teams convincingly, especially these top teams in the NFL, it’s a good feeling.”


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Lamar Jackson's MVP season takes another leap forward

Lamar Jackson's MVP season takes another leap forward

By the numbers, Lamar Jackson is an MVP candidate. 2,258 passing yards, 788 rushing yards, 25 combined touchdowns and an 8-2 record will do that.

By narrative, Lamar Jackson is an MVP candidate. Beating fellow candidates Russell Wilson by 14, Tom Brady by 17 and Deshaun Watson by 34 en route to an 8-2 record will do that.

By vote of his teammates, Lamar Jackson is the MVP. Period.

Just let Mark Ingram tell you.

“I would just like to introduce you all to the man, the myth, the legend, the MVP frontrunner...if anybody else got something different to say about that, then come see me,” the Ravens running back emphatically told reporters after the game. “I’m right here in B-more outside the Bank.” 

Ingram has been conducting the Lamar Jackson hype train all season long, pointing out how the man he calls “just a special player” continues to one-up himself each and every week.

It does feel like Jackson has to find some way to top himself each week, and somehow, he’s able to do it. At a certain point, we shouldn’t be surprised at how often we need to pick our jaws up off the floor.

What makes Jackson’s MVP run so interesting is who he’s beaten. It’s one thing to compare multiple players across a 16-week season, but Jackson has actually had the chance to face a number of his closest competitors.

Russell Wilson and Deshaun Watson are both considered top-five candidates, with Wilson the prohibitive favorite. And yet Jackson has now beaten both by multiple touchdowns.

Furthermore, there’s not an argument to be made that Jackson is being carried by his team. Yes, Mark Ingram is enjoying a resurgence, and the offensive line is playing as well as it ever has. But the front office specifically built this team around Lamar Jackson and his skillset, and it’s paying more dividends than they could have ever imagined this quickly.

Seth Roberts, who caught his first touchdown of the season against the Texans, has his own nickname for Jackson.

“I call him Freaky-L,” Roberts said after the game. “You know he can do anything out there. He’s just freaky, and we’re on the ship with him. I’ve never seen anything like Freaky-L. I texted Freaky-L on Instagram before he got drafted. I told him, ‘you’re legit, man.’ He can do anything on the field. He’s a freak.”

Given how well he’s played, the records he’s setting, the team’s record, who specifically they’ve beaten, and how vital he’s been to the Ravens’ success, there’s very little case to be made for anyone other than Jackson for the MVP through Week 11. The MVP is a narrative award, and Lamar Jackson has been *the* storyline of the 2019 NFL season.

Even Deshaun Watson, the fellow MVP candidate who failed to score a touchdown for the first time in his NFL career Sunday, has to admit what Jackson is doing is on another level.

When asked about swapping jerseys with Jackson, Watson told reporters he wrote, “Always love, keep grinding and MVP.”

When your stiffest competition is anointing you with the league’s premier award, you’re having a terrific season.

Linebacker Tyus Bowser, also fully supportive of Jackson, does point out the cloud hanging over all of this MVP talk. The season still has a lot of football left.

“We still have plenty of weeks to go, and whatever happens happens,” he explained.

Of course, the MVP award isn’t the most important thing to Jackson’s teammates. 

“Lamar is going to continue to lead us,” Bowser continued. “And that’s all that matters.”