A dress rehearsal for season opener
Flacco, most starters will get in their repetitions, tune up for the regular season
The anticipation of quarterback Joe Flacco’s first preseason appearance this year has overshadowed the final dress rehearsal for most of the Ravens starters before the regular-season opener Sept. 11 against the Buffalo Bills.
When the Ravens face the Detroit Lions tonight at M&T Bank Stadium, all eyes will be on Flacco, who will play in a game for the first time since he tore the ACL and MCL in his left knee Nov. 22. Flacco said he expects to play about a half, the typical workload for Ravens starters in the third preseason game under coach John Harbaugh.
“The big thing about preseason is always getting back out there and getting oiled up, and part of that is playing well,” Flacco said Thursday. “A big part of going into the first game of the season is confidence in what we have and how we’ve done in live games. Obviously, it’s not as important as a regular-season game, but for our confidence as a team, especially some of the young guys we have out here, to get them used to winning football, it’s pretty important.”
In winning their first two preseason games, the Ravens have stuck to a vanilla
script. They have not taken many shots down the field on offense or unleashed any blitzes on defense. On special teams, Justin Tucker has kicked off relatively short and in the middle of the field, forcing players in coverage to make a tackle.
The Ravens will play tonight’s game closer to regular-season conditions. Because Harbaugh doesn’t usually play his starters in the fourth and final preseason game, tonight represents the best opportunity for each of the Ravens units to get fine-tuned before the regular season begins. Here’s what they’ll be looking to accomplish:
The No. 1 goal, by far, is for Flacco to exit the game healthy and feeling good about himself. Results aside, Flacco needs to knock off some rust, gain chemistry with his receivers and maybe take a hit or two to get over that potential psychological hurdle.
Beyond that, a big play or two in the running or passing game would build some momentum for the Ravens, who have averaged just 3.7 yards per rush in the preseason and have just one passing play over 20 yards — and that was to reserve tight end Nick Boyle, who is suspended for the first 10 weeks of the regular season.
Wide receiver Mike Wallace and tight end Benjamin Watson, the team’s two big offseason pass-catching additions, have yet to be targeted, and projected starting wideout Kamar Aiken has one catch, though it did go for a touchdown. The Ravens’ top running backs on the depth chart — Justin Forsett and Buck Allen — have combined for 15 carries and 31 yards.
Offensive coordinator Marc Trestman, whose offense tonight will likely be without wide receivers Steve Smith Sr. and Breshad Perriman, tight ends Maxx Williams and Dennis Pitta, and starting left guard John Urschel, isn’t concerned with the individual numbers. But he certainly would like to see a more explosive and efficient effort from his group.
“What we want to see is to be as mistake-free as we can, to allow our guys to put themselves in a position to win the one-on-one battles, to be physical in the run game and make some yards with our runs, make some positive yards and get to a point where the amount of yards we get on those runs is acceptable to us [and] to win in the contested throwing outside,” Trestman said.
The defense has allowed just one first-half touchdown drive in two games, and that came after an interception gave the Carolina Panthers the ball at the Ravens’ 26-yard line. However, Panthers quarterback Cam Newton engineered a 14-play, 68-yard drive that resulted in a field goal in the first series of the preseason opener. Indianapolis quarterback Andrew Luck led the Colts on an 11-play, 61-yard drive that led to a field goal on the first series last week.
“I’d like to see us get off to a faster start,” Ravens defensive coordinator Dean Pees said. “The first two preseason games we’ve done a good job of holding someone to a field goal on drives, but I’d really rather not see a 10- or 11-play drive to start the game. We have to get off to a faster start than what we did and keep playing well in the red area.”
The good news is the starting defense has forced two turnovers in limited action, and that’s without generating a pass rush beyond the front four. It has been at its best in the red zone, forcing field-goal attempts rather than allowing touchdowns.
However, the coverage on the back end has let down at times with cornerbacks Shareece Wright and Jerraud Powers having some problems. The run defense also has given up some plays, particularly against quarterbacks. Both areas need to be tightened.
Pees also wants to see his defense play with more discipline after the Ravens were called for nine penalties last week, with seven of them giving the Colts first downs.
The Ravens continue to try to solidify their return game.
While Michael Campanaro (River Hill) looks like the front-runner to return punts, associate head coach and special teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg is giving a variety of players, including running backs Terrance West (Northwestern High, Towson University) and Kenneth Dixon, and cornerback Tavon Young, repetitions at kick returner. A couple of explosive returns by any of those players would go a long way toward securing the job.
The kickoff-coverage team has struggled in the preseason.
The Ravens are allowing 29.6 yards per return. While that hasn’t pleased Rosburg, he noted that the Ravens haven’t used several of their veteran special teams mainstays, including linebackers Albert McClellan and Zachary Orr, and fullback Kyle Juszczyk, on the coverage teams in the preseason. Instead, they’ve given several young players who have little special teams experience the opportunity. That figures to change tonight. “The third preseason game is different from the first two, in that we try to stage it like a regular-season game with our offense and defense. What you will see is the player rotation will be different,” Rosburg said.
“The first two preseason games, we are trying to develop players. The third preseason game starts out more like a real game.”
For quarterback Joe Flacco, tonight offers a chance to knock off rust, develop timing and chemistry with receivers, and take a hit or two in his first game since knee surgery.