Thursday night’s preseason opener against the San Francisco 49ers offered Ravens fans something they haven’t seen since 2012: a competent offense, particularly as pertains to the run game.
The team averaged almost five yards per carry on 48 attempts, totaling 237 yards on the ground. Overall – while still just an opening preseason game – it looks like fans can have some confidence in both the (starting) offensive line and running backs unit as 1/4 of the preseason is already in the books.
Baltimore’s first test of the season offered many things to take note of on offense.
1. The first-team offensive line didn’t play much, but Ricky Wagner did, and played quite well.
Having played only one series, it’s tough to put too much stock in the starting offensive line’s performance, but on that drive, none of the five linemen struggled. All got leverage in the run game, kept quarterback Joe Flacco clean and kept the offense churning.
The one player of note, though, is second-year right tackle Ricky Wagner. He was the only starter to stay on the field when substitutions were made, and in his first game as the starting right tackle for the Ravens, he fared well. On the opening drive, he managed to successfully take on outside linebacker Ahmad Brooks multiple times, and while playing with the backup linemen, he looked comfortable and better than his counterparts.
Jah Reid didn’t take over at right tackle until the second half.
2. While one second-year lineman played well, another didn’t do himself any favors.
The second-team offensive line saw rookie James Hurst at left tackle, Ryan Jensen at left guard, Gino Gradkowski at center, A.Q. Shipley at right guard and Wagner at right tackle. Of the five, the one who most noticeably struggled was Jensen.
This was the first time fans got to actually watch Jensen play in a game (he missed the entire 2013 preseason and regular season) and, well, it’s hard to be impressed. Struggling with leverage and strength, Jensen was toyed with by the 49ers defensive line on multiple occasions. Having no other game tape to his name yet, it doesn’t help Jensen’s cause to have such a poor start to his career.
Granted, there is the flip side, which may be that Jensen simply needs some playing experience and could settle in by the end of the preseason. But if he was the worst performer on an interior line that included Gradkowski and Shipley….well, you get the idea.
3. Tyrod Taylor didn’t lose any ground in the backup QB competition, but he didn’t gain any, either.
Luckily for Tyrod Taylor, rookie Keith Wenning didn’t attempt a pass on Thursday night, as the rookie only came in at the end of the game to hand the ball off and take victory formation snaps.
But not-so luckily for Taylor was his performance. He kicked it off with a 27-yard scramble (yeah, we already knew he was fast), but after that, we watched him as a passer for the majority of the game and it wasn’t pretty. Let’s just put it this way: when it comes to passing the ball, Taylor is the exact same quarterback he was when he joined the team in 2011.
Inaccurate, uncomfortable in the pocket and the definition of a one-read QB.
4. We waited all offseason to find out how Kyle Juszczyk would be used, and Gary Kubiak didn’t disappoint.
A bigger role for second-year fullback Kyle Juszczyk was expected, but just how he would be used remained to be seen. Juszczyk’s receiving ability is his strong suit, but he still lined up for the most part as a traditional fullback in the backfield, being used as a lead blocker on several occasions.
He didn’t look out of place as a blocker, which is a good sign, and he contributed as a receiver with three catches, including one down the seam from Flacco on the opening touchdown drive. Juszczyk figures to be a full-time staple in the offense this year and will be exciting to follow and track his development after hardly touching the field on offense last season.
5. If the Ravens keep six receivers, it’s going to be a crowded battle for roster spots.
The four roster locks at wide receiver are Steve Smith Sr., Torrey Smith, Marlon Brown and Jacoby Jones. After the top four, who else makes the team?
A player with an easy track to the roster is rookie Michael Campanaro, whose value both on special teams and as a slot receiver could even lead to some first-year offensive playing time for the seventh-round pick. Assuming the Ravens keep Campanaro on the final 53 (there’s always a chance he could get “injured”; however, he’s simply too talented to redshirt for his entire first season), that would put the Ravens at five receivers, leaving only one roster spot at the position.
Six is typically the magic number for wide receivers on the roster, and if the Ravens follow suit, then the top contenders for that final spot would be Kamar Aiken, Jeremy Butler and Deonte Thompson.
Aiken took on a fairly large role against the 49ers, staying on the field for much of the second-team offense’s drives. He finished with four catches, never displaying much inherent speed, but showed off quality hands. Aiken is a 25-year-old journeyman who is on his fourth NFL team and doesn’t have a regular season catch to his name, but he’s worth keeping an eye on.
Butler, of OTA fame, hauled in two passes – including a touchdown – in limited playing time and his counterpart, Thompson played on special teams and earned some offensive reps, catching one pass.
None necessarily scream “keep this man on the final roster!,” although Aiken’s solid first game and Thompson’s incumbency make them the likely favorites, for now.
6. The talent at running back was noticeable.
Starting with Ray Rice and ending with Fitzgerald Toussaint, pretty much every Ravens running back produced a solid outing in the first preseason game.
Rice had just three carries, but did look fairly quick compared to last year. A bigger sample size is needed to fully tell if he will be a faster running back with a better first step and change of direction this season, but the first game was a positive sign.
The first backups to Rice were Bernard Pierce and Justin Forsett, who both had some notable plays on limited carries. One thing of note regarding the backups is that Pierce scored the touchdown on Baltimore’s opening drive, taking the goal line carry over Rice. Maybe a sign that his short yardage capability will be further utilized this year?
After Pierce and Forsett came rookie fourth-round pick Lorenzo Taliaferro, who did not disappoint.
Also playing on special teams, Taliaferro carried the workload for the running backs, totaling 13 carries and 71 rushing yards. He’s a patient runner with just OK speed without a second gear, but can pick up what’s given to him and use his size to fight for extra yardage. His pass blocking ability was also on display.
The Ravens will need to rely on Taliaferro for some carries during Rice’s two-game suspension, and his 13-carry debut is a good sign that he should get plenty of reps during the preseason, which should prepare him for increased role during Rice’s absence.
7. It appears rookie John Urschel is buried on the depth chart.
Considered possibly a contender to unseat someone like A.Q. Shipley on the roster, it seems apparent that Urschel isn’t coming along very quickly, as he worked with the third-team offense and didn’t relieve Shipley at right guard until late in the fourth quarter.
Urschel joined the third-team offense and wasn’t on the field very long before the Ravens entered victory formation, although on one run play, he didn’t get to the second level soon enough to seal off a linebacker. Being a quick mover to get to linebackers was one of Urschel’s positives at Penn State, but in his extremely small sample size, he failed to do so.
The more notable thing – aside from his short performance – is that Urschel has an uphill battle to get ahead of fellow interior linemen above him on the depth chart. The Ravens shouldn’t need him other than as a last resort guard/center backup this season, but he does need to play well in practices and games before final cuts, because if the Ravens wanted to try to place him on the practice squad, it’d be a tough process, since Urschel (a fifth-round pick) would possibly be scooped up by another team.
8. Thank goodness Gary Kubiak works for the Ravens.
There was a time when Jim Caldwell was viewed as the potential savior to the post-Cam Cameron era for the Ravens after the 2012 Super Bowl run, but his 2013 coaching performance proved otherwise.
It turns out that the offensive mind everyone wanted in Baltimore wouldn’t come until a year later, and that man is Gary Kubiak.
We knew he was a quality offensive coach, we knew he would utilize multiple tight ends, we knew he would install a quick-passing offense, we knew he would bring an improved running game to Baltimore, we knew the zone-blocking scheme would look better with Kubiak in charge.
But on Thursday, we finally got to see it.
If the first game is any sign of what to expect moving forward, expect to love Kubiak this season.
The run game was consistent, the quarterbacks often lined up under center, a traditional fullback was used frequently, two tight ends were on the field on many occasions, and the passing game focused on getting the ball out fast and keeping the offense moving.
If you need just one stat to take away from the game, make it this:
The Ravens had 48 run plays and 26 pass plays.
Here’s to hoping that will be a trend this year.
Those are my observations from game one. Please share yours below.