With Smith confined to his hotel room during the game as he was unable to keep fluids down over the past few days and veteran Kyle Boller unable to take his place due to a right, throwing shoulder injury suffered during a big hit last week, rookie Joe Flacco was thrust into the game for his first NFL start against the St. Louis Rams and was forced to play the entire game.
What transpired in the Ravens’ 24-10 defeat at the Edward Jones Dome was a classic case of typical rookie growing pains contrasted by a few crisp, encouraging moments in the second half where the former Delaware star displayed the potential that prompted Baltimore to draft him in the first round of the NFL draft.
Meanwhile, the secondary created more cause for alarm as they were repeatedly victimized by Rams quarterback Marc Bulger as the Ravens allowed 411 yards of total offense.
"We’re concerned about a lot of things," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "It’s the preseason, and we’re trying to get better. We all have to get better."
Following a shaky first half where Flacco was generally wild and erratic and held the football too long as he was sacked once and had an intentional-grounding penalty in going 4 for 13 for 33 yards and a 40.2 quarterback rating, the New Jersey native displayed his competitive mettle in a third-quarter drive.
He completed all four passes for 61 yards to veteran wide receiver Derrick Mason, capping a seven-play, 75-yard drive by lobbing a well-timed fade pass to Mason for a 15-yard touchdown.
It was the first touchdown pass of the preseason for any of the Ravens’ three quarterbacks. Overall, Flacco completed 18 of 37 passes for 152 yards, one touchdown, no interceptions and two sacks for a 68.8 quarterback rating.
"I was a little jacked up at the beginning of the game, not that you guys could tell," Flacco said. "I was a little amped up. It was exciting for me.
"I had to calm myself down a little bit as the game went on and I felt like I did. I felt like the whole game experience and getting out there and playing four quarters in a row was good for me."
Added Harbaugh: "Joe did okay in there, without much preparation this week. He was a little amped up, and threw some high balls because of that. He’ll settle down as he plays more."
Nonetheless, the quarterback competition is an even cloudier issue now.
This was supposed to be Smith’s prime audition, or even a potential coronation as Harbaugh had stated he wanted to evaluate the former Heisman Trophy winner for the majority of the game. A convincing performance could have won Smith the job and ended the rampant speculation about who should be installed under center.
Instead, Smith became so ill that team officials were slightly concerned about whether he was contagious to other players’ health. Smith traveled back to Baltimore on the team charter, though.
With Boller hurting, Smith nauseous and Flacco supposedly eliminated already from the quarterback derby due to his inexperience as he adjusts to the increased speed of the NFL after starring at the Division I-AA level, the Ravens are at a crossroads again.
They’ll probably need to utilize a preseason finale against the Atlanta Falcons on Thursday at M&T Bank Stadium to determine who should start the season-opener Sept. 7 against the Cincinnati Bengals.
When asked if Smith would start against Atlanta, Harbaugh replied: "I think it is a possibility, but we have to talk about it. We have to see how Kyle is doing and we have to see how Troy is doing and that is something we don’t have to do at midnight tonight."
During Flacco’s up-and-down starting debut, the other side of the football was a major problem area and nearly overshadowed the quarterback crisis.
Reserve cornerbacks Corey Ivy and Frank Walker were repeatedly targeted by Rams quarterback Marc Bulger with Pro Bowl cornerback Chris McAlister sidelined with a right knee injury.
Bulger took full advantage by completing 18 of 25 passes for 182 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions for a 119.1 quarterback rating. Bulger completed 15 of 19 passes in the first half.
The Rams converted 7 of 15 third downs, a 47 percent clip.
"We don’t care who is out there, we have to play like Ravens," defensive coordinator Rex Ryan said. "We need to play faster and more physical. We let them stay on the field forever in the first half. That’s not acceptable in the preseason, not acceptable ever."
In the second quarter, the wheels practically fell off in the secondary. Especially during a drive where Bulger used Ivy for target practice.
Three times in a row, he went after the veteran cornerback. Three times, he completed passes for solid yardage as he connected with Torry Holt for 14 yards, nine yards and Donnie Avery for 15 yards with Ivy covering.
Three plays later, Bulger hit Keenan Burton for a 4-yard touchdown pass in the corner of the end zone with Walker a step behind him. Following an instant-replay review, the officials reversed their initial incompletion ruling and awarded him a touchdown as replays showed he clearly got both feet in as well as one knee.
After halftime, Bulger went back to work on Ivy. He found Burton behind Ivy for a 40-yard completion down to the Ravens’ 9-yard line.
A few plays later, Bulger threw a five-yard touchdown pass to former University of Maryland running back Lance Ball when middle linebacker Nick Greisen got picked and couldn’t catch up with Ball in the flat for a 24-10 advantage.
It capped a six-play, 76-yard drive.
"We have a lot of people out, but that’s still no excuse," said cornerback Samari Rolle, who made his preseason debut. "We didn’t get off the field on third downs as much as we should have. We missed some tackles. We have to fine-tune our game and get better."
During the first quarter, Flacco’s first pass of the game was too high and too hard for Mason to corral.
He eventually settled down, though, completing his second attempt for 14 yards to Mason. However, he was incomplete on his next three attempts.
After rookie safety Tom Zbikowski partially blocked a punt with the football sailing 11 yards to the Rams’ 20-yard line, Flacco overthrew a pass in the corner of the end zone to a well-covered Mark Clayton and Baltimore had to settle for a 22-yard Matt Stover field goal that tied the game at 3-3.
In the second half, Zbikowski made another big play. He intercepted Bruce Gradkowski in the fourth quarter and returned it 21 yards to the Rams’ 44-yard line.
Meanwhile, the Ravens generated just 76 yards on 24 plays in the first half and finished with 209 yards overall. Fullback Le’Ron McClain led the team with 41 yards on eight carries.
The Ravens converted just 1 of 13 third downs.
"We have to score touchdowns when we get the chance, and we had one after the blocked punt," offensive coordinator Cam Cameron said. "That was a great opportunity and we didn’t get in. Field goals are not a bad thing, but touchdowns are the goal.
"We didn’t get many opportunities in the first half, and that’s our fault. We have to keep the ball, convert third downs. We weren’t good enough in the first half."
NOTES: Outside linebacker Terrell Suggs made his preseason debut after reporting to team headquarters and signing his $8.47 million franchise tender earlier this week. He was credited with two tackles, but had no quarterback pressures. "It felt really good to run around with my boys and play football," Suggs said. "I don’t think I played too badly. I’m still a little rusty and I have to knock the dust off. Hopefully, by Sept. 7, all the rust will be gone. I didn’t get tired, and this is the first time in a long time that I didn’t get tired playing football." … Rookie wide receiver Marcus Smith separated his shoulder, linebacker Tavares Gooden suffered a concussion and cornerback Fabian Washington injured his thigh. … The agent for free agent offensive tackle Fred Miller said Saturday night that no deal is imminent with the Ravens. It’s believed that Miller still prefers to re-sign with the Chicago Bears and hopes to make a decision as soon as Monday.
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.