OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Ideally, the Ravens would be putting the finishing touches on their 2017 preparations against Buffalo on Saturday night.
The third preseason game is typically the final tuneup for the starting units before they turn their sights toward the season opener in a couple weeks. The Baltimore offense instead remains in a concerning state of flux with several key players out once again against the Bills.
In fact, the Ravens could field an entire offense (see below) with players currently sidelined with injuries or already lost for the season, which tells you how difficult the last couple months have been for a group that already sustained some substantial losses in the offseason.
QB Joe Flacco
RB Kenneth Dixon
WR Breshad Perriman
TE Crockett Gillmore
LT Ronnie Stanley
LG Alex Lewis
C John Urschel
RG Nico Siragusa
RT Stephane Nembot
TE Dennis Pitta
WR Tim White
Of course, Flacco is expected to return to practice as soon as the beginning of next week, but his absence again makes it extremely difficult to evaluate the passing game. Even if backup Ryan Mallett improves from his uninspiring performance over the first two preseason contests, the Ravens will hope it’s the final time he’s seeing any meaningful playing time with the starters this season.
The focus should be on the running game. After hiring senior offensive assistant Greg Roman and new offensive line coach Joe D’Alessandris to rebuild a ground attack that ranked 28th in rushing yards per game and 21st in yards per carry in the NFL last season, the Ravens need to see meaningful progress with four of their five projected offensive line starters expected to be on the field Saturday.
“Our run game, Joe D has done a great job, fantastic job,” said offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg, who also praised Roman’s efforts to install a more downhill, physical attack. “You look at what that line has been through here recently — nobody has blinked. That’s big. We’ve got guys that have played multiple spots and continue to do that, and [they’re] playing pretty well there. That’ll be a big, big part of our football team if we can run the football against a really good defense.”
Despite positive remarks from Mornhinweg and head coach John Harbaugh this week, the Ravens have averaged just 3.5 yards per carry in the first half of their first two preseason games when starters and key backups have played. Considering six-time Pro Bowl right guard Marshal Yanda has yet to see any preseason action and Stanley missed the Miami game, we can’t take much away from the first two games, but those numbers are all we have to go on so far and the running game wasn’t finding much room against a stout defensive front in training camp practices open to media.
Projected starter Terrance West has carried just 11 times on 21 yards in the preseason while backup Buck Allen has gained 61 yards on 18 rushing attempts. In addition to getting West into a flow ahead of the regular season, the Ravens must still figure out their fullback picture, which has included Lorenzo Taliaferro, rookie free agent Ricky Ortiz, and even defensive tackle Patrick Ricard.
On the offensive line, new right tackle Austin Howard needs to show improvement from his unimpressive preseason debut in Miami while Ryan Jensen must continue his solid work to hold off former starter Jeremy Zuttah for the center job. Unfortunately, the left side of the line is more complicated to judge with projected left guard James Hurst filling in at left tackle with Stanley still out.
The expected presence of Yanda on Saturday night hopefully allows the group to begin finding much-needed cohesion.
The Ravens made no secret in the offseason about their desire to revitalize a running game that’s been substandard in three of the last four seasons. That goal has become even more important with Flacco missing the entire summer and likely to be rusty going into the regular season.
Attempting more passes than any team in the NFL over the last two years hasn’t worked and will not be the winning formula for 2017.
“The history of the Ravens shows that you play great defense, you run the ball, you don’t turn the ball over, [then] you win and you’ll have a chance at the Super Bowl,” safety Eric Weddle said. “We’re going to show that and see where it takes us.”
With a defense showing great potential in 2017, the offense likely just needs to be average for the Ravens to have a good chance to return to the playoffs for the first time since 2014.
We won’t learn much about the passing attack on Saturday, but the ground game making strides would make the Ravens feel much better with Flacco hopefully returning to the practice field next week.