BALTIMORE RAVENS 17, CAROLINA PANTHERS 12
August 12, 2010
Ravens battle weather, inconsistency; begin preseason with a win.
Mixed weather and mixed results. That’s how things went for the Baltimore Ravens in their preseason opener, a 17-12 win over the visiting Carolina Panthers.
Generations of Baltimoreans have come to expect humid August days followed by stormy evenings and Thursday was no exception as the clouds opened up in the second half, bringing rain and sloppy play.
Conditions compounded the coaching staff’s challenge of evaluating the talent at the back end of the roster. In fact, the results were just as predictable as the weather, with Carolina picking up two Ravens second-half fumbles that lead to ten of their twelve points.
Despite the miscues, the Ravens were able to show progress in two of the most talked-about areas of concern last season.
On offense, the revamped passing attack shined, with stout pass protection from the starters, and the deeper receiving corps flashing with some brilliant moments.
Defensively, the pressure put on the inexperienced Carolina quarterbacks from the Ravens front seven was promising, especially after head coach John Harbaugh identified interior pressure as the team’s number-one priority coming into training camp. If anything, this defensive strategy was made more critical by the fact that the team’s top three cornerbacks were out for the game. There’s no doubt that it helped a patchwork secondary shine throughout the contest, easing fans’ greatest fears a bit – at least for this week.
Evaluating individual play in the preseason is difficult, given how uneven the level of competition can be throughout game. But a few players stood out for their excellent play, including many new names to Ravens fans. Ravens 24×7 game balls go out to four stand-outs who are new additions, or who will be counted on for increased roles:
Prince Miller, Nickel Back, Punt Returner
Ed Dickson, Tight End
Cary Williams, Corner Back
Terrence Cody, Defensive Tackle.
On the flipside, inconsistent play in three key areas means another week of waiting for some answers. Offensively, a pair starters on the left side – guard Ben Grubbs and relocated tackle Michael Oher looked slow and out of synch; the back-up quarterback play of Mark Bulger and Troy Smith was inconsistent; and the training camp battle for the inside linebacker spot next to Ray Lewis remains very much unsettled based on this one game. Starter Jameel McClain, along with Dannell Ellerbe and Tavares Gooden did little to separate themselves from the pack.
Unit by unit, here’s how the Ravens fared overall.
Joe Flacco got his work in and performed efficiently, making good, but not spectacular throws. His numbers, eight of twelve for 120 yards and a touchdown are hard to argue with, even if padded by a number of screen passes for long gains. Mark Bulger was much less consistent, with poor long throws and a fumble when he failed to protect the ball when leaving the pocket. He did look more comfortable playing more of a West Coast style, moving his feet and hitting receivers on slants and out patterns. Troy Smith did little to make you think other teams will make inquiries with Ozzie Newsome about the former Heisman Trophy Winner’s availability anytime soon.
Running Backs: C+
The coaching staff was quick to protect their biggest offensive threat, Ray Rice. His night consisted of two play action fakes to the left, a decoy while split-out wide right, and a chip block on TE before drifting into the flat. LeRon McClain put in the most impressive runs, churning for extra yards to push his average to five yards a carry. Willis McGahee, who looked bigger than last season, shined as a pass catcher out of the backfield. Jalen Parmele did a nice job stepping up for Bulger in pass protection, but his fumble in the rain led to a long Carolina touchdown return. Rookie Curtis Steele had a chance to show why there has been a buzz about him in camp. He shined by escaping a near-safety and moving the ball sixteen yards straight up the middle. And he bounced another run to the outside for twenty. But Steele also fumbled to set up a Panthers field goal. Terrence Cody was inserted at fullback in the red zone, but the results were far from spectacular. Faced with the choice of two onrushing defenders, he blocked neither, and on the next play was flagged for a false start. Converted linebacker, rookie Mike McLaughlin has a long way to go as a lead blocker, opting for cut blocks most of the night, with unimpressive results.
Wide Receivers: B+
Balls were spread around to six different wide-outs, who all ran crisp routes and showed good hands. Demetrius Williams and Donte Stallworth were equally effective streaking across the middle to snare balls. Mark Clayton made the catch of the night, showing good body control to go up and snag the 30 yard toss from Flacco for a score.
Tight Ends: B+
Ed Dickson showed why many observers see a bright future for the big, lanky tight end. He snagged balls easily out of the air, and showed himself to be a downfield threat, too. He looked far less comfortable playing in tight to the line of scrimmage when asked to block on running plays, however.
Michael Oher struggled with journeyman defensive end Tyler Brayton, who was able to get into Oher’s body and slip past him twice in little more than a quarter of play. Oft-criticized right tackle Oniel Cousins held up fine, and was at his best reaching the second level on runs to the left. Rookie undrafted free agent Devin Tyler struggled mightily. Sixth round choice Ramon Harewood was decent at times, but also looked tentative and outright missed an assignment to allow Steele to get nailed for a loss.
Interior Line: B-
Other than Ben Grubbs—who was guilty of some look-out blocks to allow Ed Johnson to make three, free runs into the backfield—the unit looked stout in pass protection. The first unit in particular worked well together as a group against the more “vanilla” rushes by the Panthers. Most impressive was downfield blocking on the interior on three McGahee screens. As for the back ups, Stefan Rogers did little to stand out. Bryan Mattison may have been the most impressive lineman among the back ups, including a key block to spring Troy Smith’s touchdown run up the middle.
The Panthers left star receiver Steve Smith at home, meaning the Ravens banged-up corners were facing unheralded receivers Brandon LaFell, Dwayne Jarrett and Kenny Moore catching passes from the likes of Matt Moore and rookie Jimmy Clausen. It was not the toughest test they will face this season. Still, Cary Williams, Travis Fisher, and Prince Miller, who played nearly the entire game, by necessity, all played an excellent game. Undrafted rookie Miller showed good technique from the nickel spot, particularly when jamming LaFell and stepping in front of him to knock down a third down throw. Even when Moore tipped a pass to himself for a long gain, Fisher was in good position. Williams was the true stand-out, breaking up a jump ball in the end zone or turning quickly to find the balls throughout the evening. It paid off when he was able to snag an interception for a decent return. He also stuck Armanti Edwards as the ball arrived, causing him to drop a first down catch.
Tom Zbikowski, Haruki Nakamura, and veteran Ken Hamlin were good in coverage and better blitzing for two uncontested sacks and a handful of pressures. Nakamura seems to be fully recovered from his broken leg last season, closing quickly to deliver hits, including a shot on Tyrell Sutton to cause a goal line fumble recovered by the Ravens.
This unit delivered an uneven performance. By and large they were poor against the run, but better when pinning ears back to attack the pass. Jameel McClain had difficulty locating the ball and ran himself off a few plays. Dannell Ellerbe looked indecisive and got knocked around. Tavares Gooden showed that he could, however, be an effective third-down threat, using speed to slice into the backfield to pressure the quarterback. Prescott Burgess, Gooden and Jason Phillips performed the best from out of this group, but against weaker competition. Antwan Barnes stood out positively in pass coverage, showing he could do more than put his hand in the turf and rush.
Defensive Line: B
As with the linebackers, the defensive line shined getting pressure on passing downs, but struggled more against the run. With the exception of Terrence Cody, who was the best player on the field…and he rarely left the game. The fact that he played well, and played hard well into the fourth quarter helped ease any concerns about his conditioning. Cody consistently hustled to chase down screens or runs to the off side. And he showed an uncanny ability for a rookie to use his hands to jolt blockers and flick ball carriers to the ground. He was simply a disruptive force all night long. Paul Kruger looked bigger, as advertised, but didn’t always show great run technique. He was better as a pass rusher and showed good closing speed despite the added weight. Among the back-ups, Brandon McKinney held a slight edge over teammates Kelly Talavou, Lamar Divens, and Art Jones within this crowded position battle.
Special Teams: B
Billy Cundiff and Shayne Graham are neck-and-neck to win the starting job. Both stood out for consistently knocking kick-offs deep into the end zone, a rare achievement for Ravens kickers in years past. Graham hit a 32-yard field goal, but failed on a 50 yard attempt. Haruki Nakamura, normally special on special teams, struggled some. On a double team with Prince Miller he allowed gunner Marcus Hudson to run right past him, hustled back to set up block, but then whiffed on Tyrell Sutton. Nakamura was also flagged for leaving early on a Ravens punt. Prince Miller was excellent blocking on returns and getting in position to make blocks. But his shining moment came on a 57-yard return where he made no fewer than eight Panthers miss. Miller was able to get at least one tackler to miss him on each of his three returns. The undrafted free agent may have secured a spot on the 53 man roster with his all around play.
It was a very well-called game by Terry McAulay’s crew. There was a good no-call on Clayton’s slight push-off in end zone. Plus McAulay did a good job sorting out Harbaugh’s challenge of a Dennis Pitta catch, ruled illegal touching. They called what was obvious, and ignored what was not.
The television presentation was as strangely uneven as its curious Monday Night Football title, presented on a Thursday night—right down to the glitchy broadcast feed. The night started with Jon Gruden suggesting the Ravens staff has been asking, “’Where is Ed Reed our perennially pro bowl safety. And what is his status?’ He’s still in Colorado getting his hip examined,” explained Gruden. Five minutes later the camera cut to Reed on the sideline.
And then, to start the second half, Mike Tirico introduced the audience to new Ravens quarterback Mark Bulger by saying, “We mentioned the good stuff in St. Louis and then how things went terribly wrong: five-and-thirty. And when we met with Bulger his love for football had been completely taken out of him by the struggles in St. Louis…. Jaws, a defeated guy almost, as he came out of the experience with the Rams.” To which Ron Jaworski replied, “We walked into that meeting and it was like, ‘well, I’m not sure I want to play, I’m not sure I’m going to be here next year.’ I just didn’t see the passion, the enthusiasm you have to have to play at this level, and work at it, week in and week at. Maybe he’ll get it back.”’
Were they talking about a meeting in St. Louis, a year ago, or a day ago in Baltimore? Was Bulger not sure he’d be back in St. Louis in 2010 or back Baltimore in 2011, given that he has a one year deal with the Ravens? It was hard to know if the crew was discussing an issue Bulger left behind him in St. Louis, or that he carried with him to Baltimore.
They further lost credibility by then suggesting that Troy Smith would back-up Flacco, over Bulger, even after they suggested Bulger will be an excellent mentor to Joe Flacco.
It was an inconsistent night for nearly everyone in Baltimore, on a rain-soaked Thursday night.