As was the case in the Ravens’ preseason-opening win over the Atlanta Falcons, you can’t take anything away from the final score after the Detroit Lions won by a 27-12 margin at M&T Bank Stadium Friday night.
On the surface, the first-team units struggled once again as the offense twice drove inside the Detroit 30-yard-line — one taking them all the way to the 7 — before settling for field goals and the defense was unable to stop a high-octane passing attack for the second straight week. However, what’s lost in the scrutiny and excitement of this particular preseason is that the Ravens are reinventing themselves on both sides of the football.
And that remains a major work in progress with 23 days remaining before the regular-season opener against the Cincinnati Bengals on Sept. 10.
“I thought we played well early,” coach John Harbaugh said. “We just need to finish the drives [offensively], finish the drives on defense and get off the field on third downs.”
Offensively, quarterback Joe Flacco and the starting offense once again utilized a no-huddle attack for their three series of work. Unlike the preseason opener in which they went three-and-out three straight times, the Ravens developed a decent rhythm early as they used three-wide sets of Anquan Boldin, Jacoby Jones, and LaQuan Williams — Torrey Smith sat out with a lingering ankle injury — and dropped back to pass on 16 of the 26 play-calls the first offense ran.
It remains to be seen how committed the Ravens are to executing the no-huddle offense when the regular season begins, but it’s becoming clear that offensive coordinator Cam Cameron is taking a page from new quarterback coach and former Indianapolis Colts head coach Jim Caldwell in trying to make the high-speed attack a proficient option they can use in larger doses than in the past. The Ravens are facing the challenge of being without top tight ends Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta for the remainder of the preseason, but they’re utilizing a third receiver instead of having Pitta work in the slot as he did late last season.
Success with the no-huddle is contingent upon timing and sustaining drives in order to bring your own defense adequate rest.
However, the same problems we’ve seen in the past crept up when the Ravens were moving the ball well. On their second drive, Flacco guided Baltimore inside the 10 before Williams could not bring it what would have been a touchdown and left tackle Michael Oher committed a holding penalty that pushed the Ravens back to the 17. They settled for a 33-yard field goal by Billy Cundiff.
A drive later, they moved the ball to the Detroit 29 before reserve running back Anthony Allen whiffed picking up a blitzer for the second straight week and Flacco was sacked on a third-and-1 situation, leading to a 50-yard field goal by rookie Justin Tucker.
At that point, you could close the book on the starting offense’s night, with the same lack of efficiency — in terms of scoring touchdowns, anyway — inside the 30 hanging over their heads.
“That’s why when you do get those two chances, that’s why it’s all about finishing off, finishing off,” Flacco said. “The biggest thing with that is if we’re going to be the offense that we want to be, in order to put up 30-some points every week, you have to score touchdowns. You don’t want to get in the business of just not converting and kicking.”
The most positive news to take away from the offensive side Friday was the improvement of the offensive line. With veteran Matt Birk back at center, the Ravens once again used Oher at left tackle and rookie Kelechi Osemele at right tackle while Bryant McKinnie stood on the sideline. Run blocking had mixed results as the bulk of their rushing yards came courtesy of a 35-yard run by Jones, but the Ravens did a much better job protecting Flacco than they did in Atlanta when the quarterback was repeatedly running for his life.
“We’re definitely starting to come together,” offensive tackle Michael Oher said. “We’re still learning and guys are still getting used to some things, but we’re getting better every day.”
Once again, McKinnie did not work with the starting offensive line as you wonder more and more if the Ravens are serious about going with the more athletic combination of Oher and Osemele and how that might be a better fit for their ability to utilize the no-huddle offense. The mammoth veteran tackle blocked well against second-team defenders, but the assumption that he would eventually regain his starting left tackle job appears more uncertain after he wasn’t even rotated in for some work with the first unit.
Watching the Baltimore defense Friday, the most definitive conclusion I took away is that the Ravens are fortunate only to have to play Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson in a game that matters once every four years. The best pass-catcher on the planet torched the Ravens in the second quarter with a 57-yard reception matched up against Cary Williams and an 18-yard touchdown over a well-positioned Jimmy Smith.