Baltimore Backups Blast Atlanta, 31-17, In August Opener
SECOND-, THIRD-STRING RAVENS OUTSHINE THE STARTERS
By Joe Platania
(Look for Ravens Report's extensive "Leftovers," our usual postgame notebook, Friday morning.)
No one can blame anxious Ravens fans for wanting their favorite team to assume the kind of look it had a year ago, when it came to within a half-minute of reaching the Super Bowl.
After all, going into Thursday night's preseason opener at Atlanta's Georgia Dome, it had been exactly 200 days since the Ravens' excruciating loss to the New England Patriots during the AFC Championship Game. But the team looked 200 light years away from its 2011 version.
One thing commonly known before the Ravens' 31-17 win against the Falcons in a sparsely populated Dome was the roster didn't look like last year's, a common phenomenon in the free-agent, salary-cap era.
But did the team's pace of play and its execution rate come close to matching that of the team that nearly advanced to Baltimore's first Super Bowl since 2000?
As far as the top of the depth chart is concerned, the answer was a resounding "no."
"We got a lot of things to work on," head coach John Harbaugh said just after the first half concluded. "All three phases [of the game]. I'm not happy with any of it."
But the Ravens -- who tallied their highest-ever preseason point total against Atlanta -- outscored the Falcons with an unanswered 24-point second-half burst that, at the very least, showed which team was deeper. The host Falcons were flagged for 10 penalties (120 yards) to the Ravens' four (25).
That being said, injuries to tight end Ed Dickson (right shoulder sprain) and several other players could test the Ravens' depth as the preseason progresses.
Besides the mistakes the replacement officiating crew made -- spots were often a bit off, a few potential roughness calls weren't made and the chain gang seemed rather slow, leading to a game that took more than 3.5 hours to play -- and the team's lack of execution, the overall tempo with which his first unit carried itself was subpar.
The Ravens punted after five of seven first-half possessions, not even getting a first down until the second quarter began. Defensively, their pass rush was nearly non-existent, allowing the first three Falcons quarterbacks to effectively drive the ball down the field against what seemed to be a timid Ravens defense.
The Ravens managed to get points on the board early during the third quarter thanks to the resourcefulness of backup quarterback Tyrod Taylor (8-for-17, 64 yards, sack; 51 yards, five rushes) and the speed of undrafted running back Bobby Rainey. Both pairs of legs helped undo a first half of offensive frustration, leading to Justin Tucker's 36-yard field goal, which cut the Falcons' halftime lead to 17-10.
Incumbent kicker Billy Cundiff performed well on kickoffs, but he got no field-goal opportunities as the team left that to the undrafted Tucker. The University of Texas product has missed just three training-camp kicks.
But for every positive move the Ravens made on this night, there was a bothersome negative to go with it.
On his next punt-return opportunity, a Falcons coverage team that allowed an NFL-low 4.8 yards per punt runback in 2011 dumped the diminutive, Ray Rice-like Rainey -- an all-purpose star at Western Kentucky who ranks 11th in all-time collegiate yardage -- for a 2-yard loss.
Baltimore mostly made progress when Atlanta helped it out.
Undrafted linebacker Omar Brown pounced on a fumble at the Falcons' 10-yard line midway through the third quarter, setting up Curtis Painter's perfect play fake, right-side waggle and 4-yard touchdown pass to veteran NFL tight end Billy Bajema to, improbably, tie the game at 17-all.
Just as improbably, Bajema -- an NFL journeyman who played in San Francisco and St. Louis before being signed after Dennis Pitta's hand injury -- may now be the top tight end on the Ravens' depth chart because of Dickson's injury (see "First 'O' Gets Points, below).
Another Falcons mistake took place when Robert McClain interfered with Deonte Thompson on a 48-yard post pass from Painter (7-for-14, 76 yards, three TDs), setting up the Ravens on the Falcons' 32. Right on cue, Painter overshot Thompson in the end zone before Damien Berry picked up the unit with a tough inside run for a first down at the 22.
Thompson then made a nice leaping catch of a well-placed Painter pass over a Falcons safety for a go-ahead touchdown with 25 seconds left during the third quarter to give the Ravens a seven-point lead, for which they could solely thank reserves on both teams, the error-prone Falcons and their own hungry backups.
Brown then made another contribution by picking off a tipped Dominique Davis pass at the Falcons' 45, Atlanta's third of four turnovers, and Rainey's subsequent 18-yard screen catch and juke resulted in a game-clinching touchdown with 12:20 to play.
To that point during the second half, the Ravens' underlings had outgained the Falcons', 152-37. During the final two quarters, the margin was 172-86.
With just 4:31 left, Brown pounced on a Falcons fumble and ran it back to the Atlanta 31, setting up fourth-string quarterback Chester Stewart for his first on-field snaps as a Raven. But he was picked off a few plays later for the Ravens' first miscue of the night.
Fans would feel a lot better about the team's first-string stars if they had played even half as well as the backups when the game began.
FALCONS FLY; RAVENS GROUNDED
The Ravens' defense was charged with being on the field first, but it was hard to tell whether a pass rush that didn't have reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year Terrell Suggs on the field was having much effect.
That's because Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan, who engineered an offense that averaged 32 minutes of possession last year -- third-best in the NFL -- was using shorter patterns and a quick release to keep the Baltimore defense at bay. Ryan set a good tempo for himself and his two understudies, as none of them was sacked during the first half.
Not only that, thanks in part to the league's sixth-best third-down conversion unit, Ryan's approach resulted in an 80-yard, eight-play opening drive, which took 4:26 and culminated in a 7-yard touchdown pass to second-year wideout Julio Jones, who caught four passes for 58 yards on the possession. Ryan threw a career-high 29 touchdown passes in 2011.
Jones did a masterful toe-tap on the end-zone sideline behind Cary Williams, who immediately protested to the replacement officials' crew that the receiver was not inbounds. But it wasn't necessary for Williams to do that, because all scoring plays are automatically reviewed.
There are few, if any, teams in the NFL that show their competitiveness during the preseason as much as the Ravens do; free-agent signee Jacoby Jones took the ensuing kickoff out of the end zone -- from 9 yards deep -- out to the 20 in an effort to try to spark the offense. Later during the quarter, Jones fair-caught a punt at the 8, another unorthodox move.
But the offense couldn't produce much -- it was outgained during the first quarter by a 189-9 margin, with no first downs -- as short passes to Anquan Boldin and Torrey Smith weren't enough during the first string's opening possession. In fact, quarterback Joe Flacco (9-for-12, 88 yards, two sacks, TD) was hit hard by an onrushing Sean Weatherspoon on the third-down toss, which probably led to a few nervous moments on the Baltimore sideline.
Ryan completed his first six passes of the game before Jameel McClain -- a lighter, more mobile version of him -- knocked one down at the line of scrimmage, helping to stall the Falcons' second drive. Linebacker Paul Kruger shone brightly at that point, stalling a run play on that drive and dropping into coverage to force Ryan to make a tough sideline throw on third down.
But for the most part, all three phases of the Ravens' game did not perform well during the opening quarter.
A second straight three-and-out -- partially because of a lack of lead blocking on a Ray Rice end run -- then led to a 46-yard punt return by Dominique Franks, setting up the Falcons at the Ravens' 15 and providing a test to Baltimore's top-ranked red-zone defense from 2011 (38.1 percent touchdowns allowed). Albert McClellan and Anthony Allen were among those Ravens blocked off the ball during the punt runback.
But while those youngsters erred, the more experienced Brendon Ayanbadejo -- playing in place of the resting Ray Lewis -- picked off a quick slant from Ryan and ran it back 40 yards to the Ravens' 48, breathing life into the visitors. But a Torrey Smith false start and a sack of Flacco that resulted when he tripped over one of his teammate's feet again kept Baltimore's starters from getting a first down.
Ryan and Jones again took over as the first quarter ended, combining for a 15-yard gain to get out of their own red zone and hooking up for 36 yards down the right sideline as Lardarius Webb was caught peeking into the backfield.
Later, the 10-play, 85-yard drive ended when Jacquizz Rodgers took a lead draw and ran through a Terrence Cody arm tackle and into the end zone for a 2-yard touchdown and a 14-0 Falcons lead on the opening play of the second period.
FIRST 'O' GETS POINTS,
BUT INJURIES MOUNT
It seemed to be a punitive measure to have Flacco and the Ravens' offense go back on the field to start the second quarter -- contrary to Harbaugh's original plan -- after such a fruitless 15 minutes. Even though the coach tersely said, "I wouldn't characterize it that way," it seemed he wanted results out of his first group, and he got them.
After another sack of Flacco set up a third-and-12 situation, Torrey Smith ran a right-sideline comeback to get the Ravens' initial first down of the game and hauled in a 25-yard dig route to the left to get into Atlanta territory.
Fullback Vonta Leach then sprung out of the backfield to make a 12-yard catch to the Atlanta 28. Two plays later, on third-and-1, Flacco changed the play at the line of scrimmage and hit Jones on a slant for first-and-goal at the 9.
Then, one of the laser-type passes Flacco has been showing in training camp showed up when he hit Dickson for a 9-yard touchdown over the middle with 10:49 to go to cut the Falcons' lead in half. Flacco didn't go deep much during his stint -- he overthrew his receivers on two long chances -- but the 77-yard, 11-play drive totaled more snaps than the nine the first string got during the opening quarter.
Those last two plays left Jones and Dickson, at least, shaken up on the sideline. Jones was wincing in obvious pain while crouching down and Dickson went to the locker room holding his right arm gingerly.
Dickson -- who suffered a shoulder sprain, joining Pitta on the injured list -- had missed part of last Saturday's M&T Bank Stadium practice after getting poked in the eye, but returned to the field on Monday.
At the two-minute warning, defensive tackle Ryan McBean was seen down on the turf holding his left ankle, resulting in his being carted off the field with an air boot. Even though McBean is due to miss the regular season's first three games because of a league-mandated suspension, management has had high hopes for the former Denver Broncos free agent.
Not only that, but McClellan was getting his leg stretched out just before halftime, the likely result of a cramp. Rainey also cramped up early during the fourth quarter.
There were already approximately 15-20 Ravens that did not take the field because of training-camp injuries -- free safety Ed Reed did suit up and start -- so Baltimore can ill afford any further ailments chipping away at their depth.
The Falcons continued to possess momentum, even with former Ravens draftee and second-string quarterback Chris Redman at quarterback, taking more chances downfield. But fifth-round Ravens rookie cornerback Asa Jackson, who had miscalculated on a punt-downing attempt earlier during the quarter, blitzed off the edge and hurried Redman to force a punt and get the ball back for Baltimore (Jackson limped off the field during the third quarter).
Another of the team's youngsters, undrafted receiver Thompson, leapt high to convert a 22-yard gain to the Falcons' 41. Thanks to a Gino Gradkowski seal block, Allen bulled down to the 27 for another first down, but the second-year running back didn't pick up a blitz fast enough and Taylor was sacked for a 11-yard loss.
Baltimore Polytechnic Institute and University of Maryland product LaQuan Williams then let a pass go through his hands on the sideline to set up a third-and-21 play, on which Williams made an end-zone catch out of bounds after Taylor flung it deep following one of his patented runs out of the pocket.
The frustrating first half was capped off when a perfect practice-type situation -- two minutes on offense -- was set up with 1:41 remaining, two timeouts left and the ball at the Atlanta 46. But the Ravens did not convert a first down, although a fourth-down pass to sixth-round draft pick Tommy Streeter appeared to gain enough to move the chains.
In turn, Atlanta was able to drive downfield under third-string quarterback John Parker Wilson in the same hurry-up mode and get points out of it when kicker Matt Bryant -- the league's most accurate kicker in 2011, missing only two of 29 attempts -- booted a 31-yard field goal for a 17-7 halftime lead.
The Ravens' backups then took over on the field as well as the scoreboard.
But most fans would rather have production from the first string, or else in December, this team could be playing out the string.
Posted Aug. 9, 2012