BALTIMORE — There was no other appropriate outcome for Joe Flacco and the Ravens’ starting offense on Thursday night.
Facing a Los Angeles Rams defense that played only one projected starter — outside linebacker Samson Ebukam — while several Pro Bowl talents sat, the Baltimore starters did exactly what was expected with a 10-play, 70-yard touchdown drive lasting just under five minutes.
The cameo was short but sweet for Flacco, who was playing in only his second preseason game since 2015.
“You know you’re probably only going to play 20 snaps or so,” said the 11th-year quarterback, who took 12 snaps if you count two plays negated by penalty. “You’ve got to get yourself ready to play an NFL football game, so it’s just these weird situations in the preseason. To go up there and have a drive like we did, it’s obviously the way we wanted it to go.”
The series began with an over-the-middle completion to rookie tight end Hayden Hurst for 12 yards and a first down. The first-round pick continues to impress with his soft hands and ability to make catches in traffic, something the Ravens have lacked over the middle since the days of a healthy Dennis Pitta.
On the first third down, offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg called for a formation shift involving running back Buck Allen, who split out wide before motioning back to the backfield. The movement set up a soft pick from wide receiver Michael Crabtree’s inside route to give Allen just enough space from linebacker Bryce Hager to catch a short swing pass and move the chains.
Facing a second-and-25 a few plays later, Flacco hit John Brown and Crabtree on consecutive throws for a total of 47 yards. Brown took advantage of a matchup against linebacker Ramik Wilson, the result of a trips alignment in which Hurst was split outside the speedy receiver. Crabtree showed chemistry with his new quarterback on the next play by running up the field as Flacco rolled left, leading to a 30-yard completion on a third-and-8 to put the Ravens inside the red zone.
Baltimore looked like it would have to settle for a field goal until a third-down illegal contact penalty extended the drive. That was all Flacco would need as he finished it off with a play-action pass to fullback-defensive tackle Patrick Ricard in the flat for a 6-yard touchdown.
Frequently knocked for his mobility that’s suffered in recent years because of an ACL tear in 2015 and last summer’s back injury, Flacco moved effectively to extend plays and even managed to slide without breaking his knee brace on a scramble early in the drive. As has been the case all spring and summer, his passes were on point as he finished 5 of 7 for 71 yards and could have had another completion to Crabtree on a sideline throw that wasn’t corralled in traffic.
What more could you want in a limited sample?
“You get a sense of, ‘Hey, maybe we’re going to be good on offense,’” said head coach John Harbaugh, who called it a night for Flacco, Crabtree, Brown, and slot receiver Willie Snead after that touchdown. “But you want to see it in a game. And we’ll want to see it in another game. Then, we’ll want to see it in a regular-season game. We’re all going to feel that way about our offense and our defense.
“But to take this step at this time was really gratifying.”
Once again, it was a single preseason drive against another team’s backups. For some context, the Ravens offense struggled against the Rams’ first-team defense in Monday’s joint practice before bouncing back to move the ball more consistently the following day.
But taking care of business on that opening drive sure beat the alternative of a three-and-out, a turnover, or the listlessness too often on display in recent years.
The Ravens offense has practiced well, competing at a higher level against the talented Baltimore defense than it has in recent years. That hardly guarantees success when the season kicks off for real next month, but building mojo is important for a unit that couldn’t get out of its own way for much of last season, a big reason why the Ravens were again on the outside looking in at the playoffs.
Thursday was a positive step for a quarterback and an offense with much to prove in 2018.
“Once the regular season starts, this isn’t going to mean anything,” Flacco said. “But what it does for our confidence as a group, our confidence as a team, that will carry us pretty far into the season. Hopefully, we can keep this going. I think we’ve got the guys to do it.”