(This blog brought to you by Atlantic Remodeling. Visit www.atlanticremodeling.com to learn about their Red Cent Guarantee!)
BALTIMORE — To harp on the negatives of an ugly offensive performance in the Ravens’ 34-27 preseason loss to the Carolina Panthers would be stating the obvious.
Turning the ball over three times in the first half is a recipe for losing to any team in the NFL and certainly didn’t make coach John Harbaugh and his coaching staff happy about the starting unit’s performance in the third preseason game that’s typically viewed as the dress rehearsal for the regular season. The Ravens know they have plenty of progress to make with their offense and little time to do it before traveling to Denver for the opener on Sept. 5.
“We obviously turned the ball over and you lose more games than you win in this league when you do that,” quarterback Joe Flacco said. “With what we did tonight, we’re not going to win a lot of football games doing that. At the same time, it was just a lot of miscommunication, and I felt like we did a lot of really good things, too.”
The sixth-year quarterback contributed to the woes, tossing two first-half interceptions, but he’s right about the big picture stemming from Thursday’s game. Unlike last week’s performance against the Atlanta Falcons in which the only tangible positive from the starting offense was a 77-yard touchdown pass to Torrey Smith, the Ravens can feel encouraged by a few developments against the Panthers.
Pro Bowl right guard Marshal Yanda returned to action and felt no ill effects from the offseason shoulder surgery that sidelined him through the first half of the preseason. The offensive line looked markedly better with him at right guard, evident by a nine-play, 69-yard opening drive that resulted in a 1-yard touchdown by running back Ray Rice. The line once again struggled when the veteran departed after the first couple series of action, which is a concerning statement about its overall depth.
Despite the shaky performance of the offensive line, second-year center Gino Gradkowski appeared to play solidly and it looks as though the 2012 fourth-round pick has all but locked up the starting job in the competition against A.Q. Shipley, who was relegated to playing time only after the starting offense was removed.
Slot receiver Brandon Stokley was targeted three times, making three catches for 43 yards and moving the chains with two of those receptions. Questions remain whether the 37-year-old can gain the necessary separation to make consistent contributions, but Stokley ran crisp routes and showed the consistent hands he’s had throughout his 15-year career.
His ability to work in the slot appears to be a godsend following the long-term hip injury to tight end Dennis Pitta at the beginning of training camp and the disappointing preseason of third-year receiver Tandon Doss, who was responsible for one of Flacco’s two interceptions when he failed to make the proper site adjustment on a coverage. It was apparent Thursday that Stokley has leapfrogged Doss on the depth chart as the first option in the slot and has solidified a spot on the 53-man roster.
“He runs great routes,” Harbaugh said of Stokley. “He does a great job of getting loose and getting open against pretty much every coverage. It was good to see.”
Perhaps even more encouraging — and definitely more surprising — was the performance of rookie wide receiver Marlon Brown, who led the Ravens with four catches for 59 yards and reined in a 24-yard touchdown catch in heavy traffic. An undrafted free agent out of Georgia, Brown suffered a torn ACL in his final season with the Bulldogs and was unable to participate in the scouting combine or pre-draft workouts, which contributed to him going undrafted in April.
Despite a rookie camp tryout with the Houston Texans, Brown eventually signed with the Ravens and was limited in spring workouts as he is still in the process of working his way back to where he was prior to the knee injury suffered last November.
“We really liked him from the beginning,” Harbaugh said. “When we first saw him on tape — I saw him — he jumped off the tape, but he had the ACL [injury]. He’s come back from that thing quickly, and he’s playing well.”
Recently receiving more practice time with the first-team offense due to his own improvement as well as the failure of other young receivers to distinguish themselves this summer, Brown and seventh-round rookie Aaron Mellette received extensive first-half action after veterans Torrey Smith and Jacoby Jones were pulled earlier than expected. It was clear the Ravens were in more of an evaluation mode than you’d expect for the third preseason game, but Brown didn’t squander the chance.
Catching all four passes thrown his way by Flacco, Brown showed solid route-running ability in sitting down in the window of a zone coverage for a first-down completion early in the first half and showed excellent timing with the starting quarterback on a deep out route early in the third quarter. However, the play that had everyone excited was his ability to use his 6-foot-5 frame to haul in a high throw in tight coverage over the middle of the field before taking it the rest of the way for the touchdown midway through the third quarter.
Truthfully, it would still be a stretch to view Brown as one of the Ravens’ top receiving options — it was only one preseason game, mind you — but you can’t teach his type of height and the Ravens have to be salivating about the possibility of using the big rookie as a red-zone target. Regardless of how Brown will ultimately fit, it’s become highly unlikely that the Ravens can sneak him onto the practice squad and he’s produced more than other young receivers fighting for roster spots anyway.
“It’s just that I know the offense a lot better,” Brown said. “I’m able to understand the calls and I’m more in sync with the quarterback. I’m working every day with him. Last week was the first week I went with the ones. I feel like the more practice and the more reps I get with them, the better it will be for me.”
Beyond Stokley and Brown, the Ravens saw an uneven performance from their veteran tight ends as Dallas Clark dropped a pass and looked uncomfortable working in the offense while Visanthe Shiancoe turned in his strongest performance of the preseason with two catches for 21 yards on three targets. Harbaugh even went out of his way to compliment Shiancoe’s blocking, which has come under scrutiny throughout his career and could be a factor in determining whether he makes the 53-man roster.
The tight end position remains nearly as difficult to figure out as wide receiver with Ed Dickson still working his way back to full strength from a partially-torn hamstring and Shiancoe and Clark trying to prove they can be real factors in the effort to replace Pitta’s production.
The Ravens offense emerged from Thursday’s performance with still far too many questions than you’d like at this late stage of the summer. Flacco has struggled to build chemistry with a revolving-door group of pass-catchers, the offensive line hasn’t performed well without Yanda, and it’s impossible to trust anyone beyond Smith and Rice as productive receiving targets at this point.
Three turnovers in the first half only augmented the concerns that were already there with offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell’s unit, but the Ravens will point to the performances of Stokley and Brown as possible pieces to the offensive puzzle. And it’s important to remember that the Ravens didn’t exactly game-plan for the Panthers after remembering Smith was targeted only once before his early departure.
As we already thought before the third preseason game, the Baltimore offense remains a major work in progress with time running out before the games start to matter and three-turnover first halves are excruciatingly unacceptable.
“We’ve just got to execute better,” Stokley said. “We moved the ball well, [but] we just shot ourselves in the foot, committed turnovers and drive-killers. We’ve got to get back to practice, work on those types of things, and get them corrected. If we do that, I think we’ll be alright.”