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The Ravens’ preseason-opening 44-16 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers provided much of what you’d you expect to see in the first exhibition game of the summer.
Some good, some bad, and much unanswered from the starting units with almost a month of preparation remaining until the start of the regular season. We did learn that the Baltimore backups were far superior to the Buccaneers’ reserves, but that’s not the type of information that will offer much for the Ravens’ aspirations to repeat as Super Bowl champions.
A revamped defense showed versatility and strong play from veteran newcomers such as inside linebacker Daryl Smith (five tackles) and defensive end Chris Canty (a sack on the opening series) but also featured communication breakdowns in the secondary that led to a few big plays surrendered in the passing game, including a 61-yard completion to tight end Tom Crabtree to end the first quarter. With so many new pieces in place, it will take time to for Dean Pees’ unit to get on the same page, but the front seven looks quite formidable on paper, especially with healthier versions of Terrell Suggs and Haloti Ngata in the mix.
The addition of Smith has eased concerns over the status of Jameel McClain as the former Jacksonville Jaguar carried over a strong start in training camp to Thursday night, showing a good nose for the ball and solid ability in pass coverage. He cemented his status as the overwhelming favorite to call the signals for the Baltimore defense in Denver on Sept. 5.
Canty played exactly how the Ravens hope he will this season as a 5-technique defensive end, holding his ground against the running game and showing a good burst as a pass rusher on the opening series of the game when he sacked Buccaneers quarterback Josh Freeman on third down.
Offensively, the pass protection held up well enough aside from blitzing linebacker Lavonte David coming untouched to sack quarterback Joe Flacco on the Ravens’ first offensive series. Two plays later, Flacco forced a pass attempt to wide receiver Jacoby Jones that was picked off by former Baltimore defensive back Danny Gorrer.
Center Gino Gradkowski made the start over former Indianapolis Colt A.Q. Shipley and appeared to play solidly with a starting offensive line sans Pro Bowl right guard Marshal Yanda, who continues to work his way back from offseason shoulder surgery.
It wasn’t an impressive debut for the wide receivers as Flacco turned to running backs Ray Rice, Vonta Leach, and Bernard Pierce more frequently in his two series of work. Torrey Smith was the only wide receiver to register a catch — making two receptions for 16 yards — with the starting quarterback in the game. Jones, Tandon Doss, and Deonte Thompson were targeted five times Thursday night and recorded just one combined reception with a couple drops mixed in there as well.
While those three have received the most attention in the much-discussed battle for the second and third receiver spots, the standout receiver of the night was LaQuan Williams, who made a tough 21-yard touchdown catch early in the second half after recovering two fumbles as a special-teams performer in the second quarter, one of them in the end zone for a touchdown late in the first half. A forgotten man after finishing last season on injured reserve, Williams may have earned himself a few more reps with the starting offense after Thursday’s outing and was in the mix as a wide receiver as a rookie in 2011.
Needless to say, the voids left behind by Dennis Pitta and Anquan Boldin were apparent, but the Ravens are fully aware that Flacco will need time to develop chemistry with a new batch of targets. And that doesn’t mean a veteran addition won’t become a reality at some point between now and September.
Above all, the special teams shined as Justin Tucker connected on all three of his field goal tries, Brynden Trawick blocked the punt recovered by Williams in the end zone, and Bobby Rainey had a 58-yard kickoff return. With only a handful of spots on the 53-man roster realistically up for grabs, this is where coach John Harbaugh wants to see younger players excel and Jerry Rosburg’s units did not disappoint.
Truthfully, the final score doesn’t offer an accurate picture of how the starters performed as the Ravens trailed 6-0 early in the second quarter when most key starters had already begun exiting the game. Flacco finished his night 7-for-9 for 57 yards and an interception as he couldn’t find open receivers down the field and the defense did plenty of bending without breaking after giving up some big plays in the first half.
It’s important not to overreact to any one player’s performance in one practice game, but backups such as Williams, outside linebacker Adrian Hamilton (a sack and an additional quarterback hit), and cornerback Asa Jackson (an interception) made strong statements for roster consideration with their performances Thursday night. Often criticized by portions of the fan base for not being good enough to be the backup quarterback, Tyrod Taylor threw two touchdown passes and showed an increased willingness to stay in the pocket, attempting 23 passes and just five runs in his extended period of work.
A preseason win is better than a preseason loss, of course, but we knew no questions would be resolved following Thursday’s tilt with the Buccaneers.
The wide receiver position remains a mystery, which would have been the case regardless of how Jones, Doss, and Thompson performed.
Gradkowski appears to be the current favorite to be the starting center, but Shipley will still receive his opportunities.
The inside linebacker position appears to be looking clearer with the strong play of the veteran Smith, but Josh Bynes and Arthur Brown will continue to fight it out for the starting weakside inside linebacker spot next to Smith.
Rookie Matt Elam is still chasing veteran James Ihedigbo for the starting strong safety spot but showed the same physicality that impressed scouts and coaches after watching his tape from his days at the University of Florida.
But perhaps the biggest takeaway from Thursday’s game was the aftermath of Moe Lee’s fourth-quarter interception in which the rookie foolishly tried to lateral the ball as he was going to the ground. Though former Ravens safety Ed Reed may have been smiling somewhere if he caught a glimpse of that play, the coaching staff certainly wasn’t amused.
However, it wasn’t Harbaugh or his assistants who ran to correct the rookie defensive back as the veteran Suggs calmly walked onto the field and explained to Lee why that wasn’t a smart play. It was the kind of defensive leadership the Ravens need following the retirement of Ray Lewis and the free-agent departure of Reed.
Yes, it was only one example of what you’re hoping to see from the 30-year-old linebacker and longest-tenured Raven, but a snapshot is all a preseason game is really worth in the scope of the entire summer.
And looking into the photo that was Thursday night, there was good and bad to take back to the practice field over the next week and beyond.