There was plenty to be concerned about throughout the Ravens’ narrow 23-21 win over the Cleveland Browns on Sunday.
The disheartening hip injury to tight end Dennis Pitta, the immense struggles of the pass defense, and the early inconsistency of wide receivers Torrey Smith and Jacoby Jones are points of concern as the Ravens turn their attention toward next Sunday’s meeting with the Carolina Panthers. But the continued dependability of veteran Steve Smith and the emergence of two young offensive players — rookie running back Lorenzo Taliaferro and second-year fullback Kyle Juszczyk — helped Baltimore improve to 2-1 in their stretch of three consecutive AFC North games to begin the 2014 season.
Despite turning 35 and coming off two straight seasons in which his yards per catch average declined from the previous year with the Carolina Panthers, the veteran Smith has been better than advertised in his first three games with the Ravens as he caught five passes for 101 yards on Sunday. No play was bigger than his 32-yard catch on a slant-and-go route to beat Pro Bowl cornerback Joe Haden on the final drive of the game to set the Ravens up on the 13-yard line, leading to Justin Tucker’s game-winning 32-yard field goal moments later.
It was just the latest example of the 14-year wideout laughing in the face of Father Time and the critics who doubted how much of an impact he would bring to the Ravens’ passing game. While Joe Flacco threw a deep ball that clanked off the hands of Jones to start the fourth quarter and connected on just two of eight targets to Torrey Smith throughout the day, the quarterback looked in no other direction but Steve Smith’s on the final drive of the game when the Ravens were staring at a 1-2 start with under two minutes to go.
And with Pitta possibly done for the season after suffering a second dislocation to his right hip in the last 14 months, Flacco will need the veteran Smith to continue being a dependable target on third down and in crunch time. Through his first three games, Steve Smith has caught 18 passes for 290 yards and a touchdown and has collected at least 71 receiving yards in each contest, a benchmark he didn’t reach once in his final season with Carolina.
Of course, Steve Smith wasn’t alone in the offensive heroics Sunday as Juszczyck and Taliaferro emerged as key contributors with the former entering the day having never caught a pass in the NFL and the fourth-round rookie tailback never registering a carry. Both made their names known against the Browns on Sunday.
Juszczyk caught a 9-yard touchdown pass midway through the second quarter and finished with three receptions for 54 yards. His presence as a receiver in the flat will be even more critical now to complement tight end Owen Daniels with Pitta’s status in doubt.
Receiving his first opportunity to carry the ball with Bernard Pierce out with a thigh injury, Taliaferro took full advantage of a shaky Cleveland run defense to pick up 91 yards on 18 carries, showing impressive speed and physicality that reminded many Ravens fans of Jamal Lewis on Sunday. Of course, plenty of credit needs to go to the offensive line as veteran Justin Forsett also averaged 5.7 yards per carry, but you do wonder if Taliaferro has already begun wrestling away the starting job from Pierce, who missed his first NFL game in three seasons Sunday but has dealt with nagging injuries throughout his career.
The rookie was decisive and aggressive when carrying the ball in contrast to what we’ve seen from Pierce, who has often looked unsure of himself running in a zone-blocking system the last two seasons.
Sunday’s win was far from perfect as the Ravens face plenty of questions both on and off the field, but a 2-1 start is nothing to be unhappy about as the offense is receiving contributions from younger players as well as the big-play ability of Steve Smith.
The disappointing loss of Pitta won’t be easy to overcome, but the Ravens offense continued to move in the right direction on Sunday thanks to the old — just don’t tell that to Steve Smith — and new.