Beyond Smith, Flacco taking leap of faith through air entering 2015

August 30, 2015 | Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — As bizarre as it was seeing Steve Smith sit in the stands during Saturday’s 31-13 preseason loss to Washington, the Ravens secretly had to be pleased knowing their top receiver was out of harm’s way.

Of course, head coach John Harbaugh wasn’t thrilled with Smith being ejected from the game for his part in a brawl late in the first quarter, but the 36-year-old hardly played like a man retiring at the end of the season. In less than 15 minutes of action, Smith caught four passes for 95 yards, including a 63-yard touchdown in which he made the Washington secondary look like a junior-varsity unit.

The early exit — which eliminated any risk of Smith getting injured in a meaningless preseason game — may have been a blessing in disguise for the Ravens as their pass-catching group lacks a sure thing behind him. Without his No. 1 wideout, Joe Flacco completed just 2 of 6 passes for 24 yards before giving way to backup Matt Schaub late in the first half.

With all meaningful preseason action now in the books — it’s all but guaranteed that Harbaugh will sit most of his starters in Atlanta on Thursday — the Ravens still haven’t answered the questions at wide receiver and tight end that they faced entering the summer. And it’s becoming clear that Flacco will be taking a leap of faith when it comes to the rest of his targets entering the 2015 regular season.

Yes, potential is there as we saw with Crockett Gillmore’s negated 33-yard touchdown catch in which he broke three tackles on his way to the end zone. But the second-year tight end finished the night with just one catch for seven yards and has only made four receptions in the first three preseason games.

Unfortunately, much of the passing game’s upside wore street clothes on Saturday as rookies Breshad Perriman and Maxx Williams could only catch passes from reserve quarterbacks Matt Schaub and Bryn Renner on the sideline late in the first half. Perriman’s status for the season opener remains in question as he continues to recover from a sprained knee suffered on July 30, and Williams has had a disappointing summer, missing some practice time and performing inconsistently when he’s been on the field.

Second-year slot receiver Michael Campanaro has flashed his ability this summer, but he missed his second straight game on Saturday as his durability remains a real concern.

The other receivers who were on the field Saturday didn’t inspire much confidence, either.

Kamar Aiken caught two passes for 29 yards, but it was his offensive pass interference penalty that wiped out Flacco’s touchdown to Gillmore late in the first quarter. Currently penciled in as the starter opposite Smith, Aiken profiles better as a No. 3 receiver at this point and has struggled to gain separation in the preseason.

Entering his third year, Marlon Brown should be getting better, but his disappointing play this summer would probably have his roster spot in jeopardy if it weren’t for the current injuries and the lack of established options behind him.

Jeremy Butler was the surprise of spring workouts, but he’s looked like just another guy matching up against second- and third-team defenses. Rookie Darren Waller may show intriguing upside as a 6-foot-6 target, but the sixth-rounder is still more project than receiving threat at this point.

To be fair, better performances from these individuals in the preseason wouldn’t have fully eliminated the questions facing a passing game that’s trying to replace Torrey Smith and Owen Daniels — it is only the preseason, after all — but the Ravens would have felt a lot better about beginning the season with five of their first seven contests away from M&T Bank Stadium if they’d seen a little more to this point. As it stands, Flacco will be leaning heavily on the ageless Smith, but opposing defenses will be aware, which will likely lead to double teams and bracketed coverage until someone else emerges as a viable threat.

It’s clear that the Ravens need a healthy Perriman, but offensive coordinator Marc Trestman and Flacco still don’t know what that looks like beyond his college tape and spring workouts that can only carry so much weight. Without their first-round pick, the Ravens lack speed on the outside, which should prompt secondaries to clamp down with tight man coverage to limit short-to-intermediate passing.

The Ravens need their young receivers and tight ends to grow up quickly with the season opener in Denver just two weeks away, but there just hasn’t been a lot of evidence to suggest that’s right around the corner.

I wouldn’t bet against Flacco making it work as he enters his eighth year and the Ravens are still built around their running game — making it critical that left tackle Eugene Monroe and left guard Kelechi Osemele are healthy after sitting out Saturday’s game — but it’s fair to feel uneasy with real games rapidly approaching.

So many questions and few answers in the passing game beyond Flacco zeroing in on Smith as the calendar turns to September this week.

The Ravens can only pray that their veteran receiver stays healthy while taking a leap of faith that the rest of their young wideouts and tight ends heal up and catch up quickly.