BALTIMORE — The final output of 31 points would deceive anyone who didn’t watch the Ravens’ 31-13 preseason victory over the Kansas City Chiefs on Friday night.
With 21 of those points being scored on the final three possessions with second- and third-team players in the game, the starting offense again struggled to find a rhythm behind a patchwork offensive line and a subpar performance by quarterback Joe Flacco. The starting unit finally broke through late in the first half when it strung together a six-play, 81-yard drive capped by a 26-yard touchdown run by Ray Rice. It was the first touchdown in six quarters of preseason football.
With uncertainty at right tackle and injuries to Matt Birk and Marshal Yanda on the interior line — as well as a pair of second-year tight ends attempting to replace the production of Todd Heap — it’s easy to label the Baltimore offense as a group in transition. And with that transition will likely come early-season struggles as young players adjust to expanded roles in the offense.
Accepting that fate, you had to be encouraged by the first-half performance turned in by the starting defense without Ray Lewis, who was away to deal with a family illness. Rebounding from a poor display of tackling and shaky pass coverage a week ago in Philadelphia, the first unit held Matt Cassel and the Chiefs to 124 yards of offense in the first half before Tyler Palko came on to orchestrate a 80-yard touchdown drive against mostly second-team players. The Chiefs were only 3-for-9 on third down in the first half after the Ravens were repeatedly burned on third-down situations in Philadelphia last week.
New defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano brought heavy pressure, using blitzes from the secondary and linebacker positions, and the defense flew to the football as the Ravens are known to do. His coaching style and personality resemble a poor man’s Rex Ryan, possessing a little swagger without the over-the-top huffing and puffing of the New York Jets coach and former Ravens defensive coordinator.
“That first group played the way that we like to play,” Pagano said. “We were aggressive and tackled well. We were physical, and we swarmed to the ball.”
Perhaps what’s most encouraging is the improvement of a number of young players to supplement the aging nucleus of the Baltimore defense. Jimmy Smith and Cary Williams started at cornerback, and while the rookie first-round pick struggled to match up against Pro Bowl receiver Dwayne Bowe, Williams nearly recorded an interception and played tight coverage for much of the first half.
It remains to be seen whether Williams will earn the starting job Week 1 against the Steelers — Domonique Foxworth and Chris Carr will have something to say about that — but the third-year defensive back from Washburn is taking full advantage of the opportunity.
“I’m blessed to be in this position,” Williams said. “I’m comfortable with the [first team]. I’m sure of myself with the [first team]. And I think I proved that during training camp.”
Rookie Pernell McPhee was again a monster at defensive end, using power and quick inside moves to get after the quarterback and had a sack eradicated by a challenge reversal for the second straight week. The fifth-round pick continues to be one of the biggest surprises of camp and is starting to look like a very real contributor to the rotation on the defensive line. Considering the improvements of Paul Kruger and Sergio Kindle to go with McPhee’s strong showing in the first two preseason games, the Ravens just might find a combination of pass rushers to alleviate pressure from Terrell Suggs on the opposite end.
“I’m kind of pleased [in how I’m playing], but I’ve got to make more plays,” McPhee said. “That’s what the Ravens defense does, is make plays, and I want to try to be a playmaker one day. I’ve just got to let the game come to me, basically, and just slow down.”
Not knowing what the future holds at right tackle and how quickly Flacco can adjust to life without former safety nets Derrick Mason and Heap, the Ravens appear on their way to depending on the defense — at least early in the season.
And with a new batch of young contributors to add to the nucleus of Lewis, Ed Reed, Terrell Suggs, and Haloti Ngata, the more things change, the more they stay the same with the defense apparently paving the way for the Ravens’ success.
“We’re feeling good,” Suggs said. “Obviously, we still have some work to do and a ways to go. But, the day that counts is September 11. Basically, every game that we play in the preseason gets us a step closer to that opener against the Steelers. I think we’re right on pace.”
The same can’t be said about the offense — at least through two preseason games — but the defense appears ready to pick up the slack. At least to start.