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LANDOVER, Md. — The real verdict about the Baltimore Ravens’ revamped offense won’t be revealed until NFL games actually count, but a few indicators Thursday night should allow the organization to begin the season by breathing a sigh of relief.
Unlike previous incarnations, the Ravens finally have a quarterback with the ability to improvise and maintain his poise in the pocket.
During a 17-10 victory over the Washington Redskins before 60,326 at FedEx Field, Steve McNair flashed some of his old Pro Bowl ability in his lone quarter of action. Baltimore ended a 10-drive touchdown drought as McNair threw his first touchdown pass since being acquired in a trade from the Tennessee Titans and signing a $32 million contract.
“You know that next week everything becomes for real, so you want to go into that game with confidence and feeling good about yourself,” said McNair, who connected with wide receiver Mark Clayton for a 15-yard touchdown. “We got some things done that we needed to accomplish.
“Our line did an excellent job of protecting and everybody did a great job of catching the ball. We still have a lot of work to do, but I think we’re on the right track.”
McNair completed 4 of 6 passes for 62 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions for a 140.3 passer rating.
Unlike a 30-7 loss the previous week to the Minnesota Vikings, the three-time Pro Bowl passer wasn’t under a constant barrage of hits. And the first-string offense didn’t commit a turnover one week after McNair uncorked an interception that was returned for a touchdown, a miscue ascribed to a blown route by Clayton.
Perhaps most importantly, the Ravens (2-2) regained their intensity one week after being thrashed at the point of attack on both sides of the football against the Vikings.
“I thought everyone, including the veterans who started the game, played at a good tempo,” Ravens coach Brian Billick said. “It was better than last week when we were a little bit flat. I liked our physicality, too.
“The Redskins are a physical bunch and we went toe-to-toe with them. We still had mistakes that irritate the coaches, things we need to get corrected.”
Against the Redskins, McNair had the presence of mind and mobility to scramble away from pressure. During his second drive following a three-and-out opening series, he stepped up in the pocket to avoid the pass rush and delivered a well-thrown 35-yard pass to Devard Darling for his second-longest completion of the preseason.
The drive eventually stalled and kicker Matt Stover pushed a 49-yard field goal attempt wide right, but the Redskins were penalized for having 12 men on the field.
Mike Anderson, who started in place of Jamal Lewis with the former Pro Bowl runner resting a hip injury, rumbled ahead for the first down on 4th-and-1. That set McNair up for a decisive throw.
Then, McNair located a streaking Clayton between the Redskins’ defensive backs for a score. McNair demonstrated some zip on his spiral, too.
“It feels good, like there is completion to the preseason and now you’re ready for the next step,” Clayton said. “I was able to slip up under Carlos Rogers, who is a really good corner, and Steve just threw the ball perfectly. I just made a play on the ball.”
That score capped a nine-play, 71-yard drive that lasted 8 minutes and 43 seconds.
It represented a major contrast to last week where the offense stumbled badly enough that the pass-blocking, efficiency and intensity all drew major scrutiny.
However, Anderson was far from commanding in his starting debut.
The former Denver Broncos starter gained only 26 yards on nine carries, and Musa Smith wasn’t any better. He managed just 11 yards on four carries.
Backup quarterback Kyle Boller had his moments, though.
The deposed former starter completed six of nine passes for 93 yards, including a 45-yard bomb to undrafted wide receiver Romby Bryant that set up a touchdown.
Redskins coach Joe Gibbs issued an unsuccessful instant-replay challenge of Bryant’s leaping grab, asserting that Bryant had fumbled the football. However, he was down by contact and the ruling on the field was upheld.
Two plays later, Boller hit rookie wide receiver Demetrius Williams in stride for a 29-yard touchdown pass. Williams caught the football in traffic, running past a clearly off-guard safety Adam Archuleta to burst into the end zone for a 14-0 lead.
Meanwhile, the Ravens’ defense flexed some muscle by forcing a three-and-out on the Redskins’ opening drive as outside linebacker Terrell Suggs harassed quarterback Mark Brunell and batted down his pass.
The bend-but-don’t-break approach was still somewhat in effect as Washington steadily gained yardage on the run.
“I don’t like to use clichés, but nobody is perfect,” defensive end Trevor Pryce said. “I think we know who we are as a defense, but it takes time to develop it fully. That might really show come Week 3.”
Seven-time All-Pro middle linebacker Ray Lewis consistently over-pursued, but his eagerness was overcome by the crisp tackling of weakside linebacker Bart Scott.
In the closing seconds of the first half, linebacker Dan Cody executed a swim move to record a six-yard sack of Redskins quarterback Jason Campbell. Seconds later, Gary Stills decked Campbell again for a loss as the Ravens took a 14-0 advantage into halftime.
“I definitely liked the intensity we had and the way we were all over the field,” Suggs said. “That’s something you feed off and take with you into next week.”
The Ravens limited the Redskins to 75 yards on 30 offensive plays in the first half.
Defensive tackle Justin Bannan was particularly active in relief, recording a sack and tackling running back A.J. Harris for a near-safety in the third quarter.
“You always want to end on a good note because next week the bullets are flying live,” Scott said. “You have to come out and get your swagger going. You don’t want to take this last game lightly because you don’t want that to be what’s in your memory going into the start of the regular season.
“There were some ups and downs. We made a lot of mistakes, but we know we can correct them. That’s the good thing about the preseason.”
In the second half, the Ravens allowed a 30-yard John Hall field goal following safety Robb Butler’s missed tackle on wide receiver Steven Harris’ 54-yard reception.
Kickoff specialist Aaron Elling connected on a 41-yard field goal late in the fourth quarter to cap the Ravens’ scoring. Redskins quarterback Todd Collins hit Mike Espy with a meaningless late touchdown pass.
Now, the Ravens have to cut 22 players to get down to the league-mandated 53-man roster limit. Plus, they have to settle on a third wide receiver between Williams, Devard Darling and Clarence Moore. Williams’ late touchdown catch was nullified by a debatable holding penalty by tight end Bobby Blizzard.
“Those players are making it very tough for us to decide the spot,” Billick said. “That’s a good thing. We know which ones will make the team, but deciding who will make the 45-man roster is still up in the air.”
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times in Westminster, Maryland.