The look on coach John Harbaugh’s face through most of the first half said it all in regards to the Ravens’ performance in what turned out to be a 31-17 win over the Atlanta Falcons after a strong second-half performance by the second and third-teamers on Thursday night.
You never want to take too much away from the first preseason game, but there was no sugarcoating how ugly the performance was over the first 30 minutes of action.
The Baltimore offense was held to just nine total yards on nine plays as it failed to collect a first down in the first quarter. Playing without linebacker Ray Lewis and rookie linebacker Courtney Upshaw, the defense was carved up by Matt Ryan and the Falcons offense for 191 yards in the first 15 minutes and allowed 17 points in the first half.
The effort was sluggish, but the major story was the Ravens’ biggest offseason concerns coming to fruition in the first snapshot of a live-game situation this summer. To panic would be much too premature, but to ignore the lack of a pass rush and concerns along the offensive line means you haven’t been paying attention to the events of the last seven months.
The Ravens received their first dose of reality without linebacker Terrell Suggs as they were unable to generate any pressure on Ryan, who picked on cornerback Cary Williams and the rest of the secondary as wide receiver Julio Jones caught six passes for 109 yards and a touchdown in the first quarter. Matching up against Jones and fellow wideout Roddy White is challenging enough, but the Ravens’ front seven were barely able to breathe on Ryan, let alone bring him to the turf.
Upshaw’s absence certainly didn’t help, but outside linebackers Paul Kruger and Sergio Kindle made little impact and Albert McClellan didn’t find success until Atlanta’s reserves began entering the game in the second quarter. As we’ve said all along, the Ravens will need a collective effort from multiple players to make up for the absence of Suggs, but what they showed against the Atlanta offense simply won’t get it done.
Defensive coordinator Dean Pees still has plenty of time to continue to find ways to generate consistent pressure, but he won’t see very much to like when he looks at the tape of the first half against the Falcons. In addition to the struggles with the pass rush, the Ravens displayed poor tackling and appeared to lack energy on the defensive side of the ball in the first half.
Despite finally waking up to march down the field for an 11-play, 77-yard drive that finished with a Joe Flacco touchdown pass to tight end Ed Dickson in the second quarter, the offense was anemic as the middle of the offensive line struggled to open running lanes and protect the pocket. Rookie Gino Gradkowski started at center for the injured Matt Birk while Michael Oher started at left tackle and rookie tackle Kelechi Osemele played on the right side.
Most alarming about the offensive line was a renewed concern at the left guard position, which was a major topic of discussion all offseason after the free-agent departure of 2011 Pro Bowl selection Ben Grubbs in March. After a strong showing through the first two weeks of training camp that had quelled most concerns at the spot, veteran left guard Bobbie Williams struggled mightily as he was consistently pushed backwards in pass coverage and had a breakdown in communication with Gradkowski that led to another sack.
On a high note for the offensive line, tackle Bryant McKinnie held up well with the second unit as he took reps into the third quarter. Though matched up against lesser defenders, his pass blocking appeared strong and his conditioning didn’t appear to be an issue, making you wonder if he showed the coaching staff enough for him to be reinserted at the left tackle position with the starting offensive line this coming week.
Despite being under duress for most of the time he was in the game, Flacco was 9 for 12 for 88 yards and a touchdown pass while operation out of quick-tempo offense over his four series of work, but the offensive line allowed him to be hit hard a few times.
With a 36-year-old center and a 35-year-old left guard projected to start, the Ravens need as much time as possible to build continuity along the offensive line. Questions will remain about how well Williams and Birk will hold up, but the options are thin behind them as Gradkowski showed flashes but often appeared to be overpowered at the line of scrimmage.
The good news for the Ravens is they still have a month to address these issues in trying to inject life in their Suggs-less pass rush and gain stability along the offensive line. The first half of Thursday night’s game is nothing more than 30 minutes of meaningless football in the scope of the 2012 season.
But it was visual evidence that the prevailing concerns of the offseason are very real and still need to be addressed before the Ravens welcome the Cincinnati Bengals to town on Sept. 10.