A dress re­hearsal for sea­son opener

Flacco, most starters will get in their rep­e­ti­tions, tune up for the reg­u­lar sea­son

Baltimore Sun - - SPORTS - By Jeff Zre­biec

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:

Of­fense

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.

De­fense

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.

Spe­cial teams

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.”

LLOYD FOX/BAL­TI­MORE SUN

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.

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