ATLANTA — Ultimately, the Baltimore Ravens opted for caution over risk.
They rested the majority of their starters after initially contemplating having quarterback Joe Flacco and the first-string offensive line make a brief appearance during the Ravens’ preseason finale against the Atlanta Falcons.
"It went down to the wire," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "Late last night, I finally decided to go this way. I thought there was merit in playing those guys. I felt like the risk outweighed the benefit for this game."
Instead of playing newly-minted left tackle Bryant McKinnie, center Matt Birk as he returns from knee surgery,
Michael Oher at his new right tackle spot and Marshal Yanda after a bout with back spasms, the Ravens went with their backup plan Thursday night at the Georgia Dome.
They started Tyrod Taylor at quarterback, Ramon Harewood at left tackle, Justin Boren at left guard, Bryan Mattison at center, Tim Barnes at right guard and Jah Reid at right tackle.
"We have a veteran group of guys who take the right approach and work hard every day," Yanda said. "We are not worried about it. We’ll work hard every day to get prepared."
Birk and McKinnie didn’t play at all this preseason.
"It’s not ideal, but it’s about the long term and the season opener," Birk said. "This was the smart thing to do. We’re a pretty veteran group. We know how to handle little blips on the screen. We’ll work our butts off the next 10 days to get ready."
Birk has been practicing for nearly an entire week after undergoing surgery at the start of training camp.
"It’s coming," he said. "It just needs a little bit more time."
The offensive line has been in flux throughout the preseason.
Now, the Ravens are going to have to get ready to play the Pittsburgh Steelers to open the season without the benefit of having their projected first-string line play any snaps together in four preseason games.
Will they be ready for Steelers outside linebackers James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley?
"We don’t have a choice," offensive coordinator Cam Cameron said. "This is pro football, and I think we all know what that means. No one really cares. By the time that game comes around, the expectation for the player, for us as coaches, for the fans is that we’re ready to play.
"We’ve got a group that is committed to getting ready, and there are no excuses in our hip pocket. We’re going to be ready to play."
McKinnie is a former Pro Bowl selection cut by the Minnesota Vikings when he reported to training camp at 387 pounds.
Now, McKinnie says he’s down to 370 pounds. There’s a $300,000 weight clause for motivation in his contract to be paid out in $75,000 increments provided that he makes undisclosed target weights.
"It’s exciting just to have a big, physical left tackle that can complement Michael Oher," Cameron said. "I think he’s a proven player. He’s got to continue to work on his conditioning.
"I think he’s going to do everything he can to make this organization proud for bringing him here. I like his attitude, I like his approach. And I don’t know how you get a player like this late in training camp, but we seem to find a way to get it done."
LINEUP SHUFFLE: With Ray Rice and Ricky Williams given the night off, the Ravens started Jalen Parmele at running back.
Tight ends Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta were listed as starters.
The Ravens started Torrey Smith and David Reed at wide receiver with Lee Evans (left foot) and Anquan Boldin not playing.
Defensively, the Ravens rested middle linebacker Ray Lewis and outside linebackers Terrell Suggs and Jarret Johnson, safety Ed Reed and defensive tackle Haloti Ngata.
They started Pernell McPhee, Terrence Cody and Arthur Jones along the defensive line.
And they started Paul Kruger and Prescott Burgess at outside linebacker with Dannell Ellerbe and Jameel McClain playing inside linebacker.
Bernard Pollard started at strong safety with Tom Zbikowski playing free safety in place of Reed.
The Ravens’ starting cornerbacks were Domonique Foxworth and Cary Williams.
HARD LUCK: For the third time this preseason, rookie defensive end Pernell McPhee had a sack and forced fumble nullified by an instant replay ruling.
McPhee sacked Falcons backup quarterback Chris Redman for a nine-yard loss, jarring the football loose with cornerback Jimmy Smith recovering.
However, it was ruled an incomplete pass because officials said Redman’s arm was going forward.
"Man, I just have bad timing," said McPhee, a fifth-round draft pick from Mississippi State who has impressed the coaching staff. "I guess I got to get there sooner and beat the guy in front of me to get an official sack.
"I’m not getting there quick enough. I’ve got to stay focused and keep going hard. I don’t play for stats. I do my best to beat the man in front of me."
SMITH IMPROVES: After struggling throughout the preseason, this was a fairly positive game for rookie wide receiver Torrey Smith.
The second-round draft pick caught two passes for 12 yards after dropping two passes last week against the Washington Redskins.
"Everything’s slower, I notice every game that things are starting to slow down," Smith said. "I’m learning. The easy part is getting back to playing football. It was a good night. I don’t remember any major mistakes. I caught the ball with no problems."
MOVING UP, MOVING DOWN: Inside linebackers Dannell Ellerbe and Tavares Gooden appeared to go in opposite directions this preseason as far as where they stand on the depth chart.
Ellerbe started twice in relief of middle linebacker Ray Lewis. And Gooden continued to be plagued by durability issues, including neck and hamstring problems.
What’s his outlook heading into the final major roster cutdown?
"I don’t know, man," said Gooden, a former third-round draft pick from the University of Miami. "It’s up to the coaches. They grade everything; they have their own opinions on things."
Under scrutiny in the past for weight and tardiness problems, Ellerbe had a strong preseason.
"I don’t want to get my hopes up high," he said. "Anything can happen. I don’t feel like I did anything to hurt myself."
LOT OF CHANGES: With the release of tight end Todd Heap and wide receiver Derrick Mason for salary-cap reasons and fullback Le’Ron McClain and running back Willis McGahee also not returning, the Ravens have lost some high-profile offensive players.
The offense has undergone a lot of change, installing Dickson and Pitta as the top tight ends and acquiring Evans to play wide receiver opposite Boldin and signing fullback Vonta Leach and backup running back Ricky Williams.
"We do have some new faces, but we’ve got a lot of guys that have been around us, too," Cameron said. "So, it’s a little bit of the way the league is. We’ve got a lot of guys that we’ve got confidence in. I think the additions we’re making are great additions for a lot of reasons.
"I’m just excited. Change is part of the deal. You might as well deal with it and try to get better. I do think all these things are done to help us win and help make us better. That’s the bottom line, and I think we’re doing that."
COUNTING ON KOCH: The Ravens have a strong benchmark at punter with Sam Koch.
The Pro Bowl alternate averaged 43.6 yards last season with 39 downed inside opponents’ 20-yard line and four touchbacks.
"Sam had a fine year," special-teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg said. "I think Sam is now probably noticed by more people. Everybody in our building pretty much knew Sam’s talents for a lot longer. His pooch punts are a weapon for us. Now, he’s developed hang-time punts for us that are giving our coverage a little time to cover.
"The things he’s working to improve are consistency and ball flight. Every day when he’s out here, he wants to have a practice where he doesn’t miss a ball and he turns every ball over."
DECISION TIME: The Ravens expect their roster cuts to be difficult as they have to get down to 53 players by Saturday’s NFL deadline.
"I hope they’re tough," Cameron said. "I hope they’re tough at tight end, I hope they’re tough in the offensive line. I think we’ve got some tough decisions to make at the wide receiver position. Our running backs, we’ve got a nice group.
"I hope all those decisions are tough. Obviously, a lot of guys are practice-squad eligible. You want to be able to hang onto some quality practice-squad guys to see if you can develop them."
QUICK HITS: The Ravens’ game captains were Taylor, safety Haruki Nakamura and McClain. …The Ravens managed to gain only 33 yards with two first downs in the first quarter. … Rookie running back Damien Berry led the Ravens with 31 rushing yards on eight carries followed by Jalen Parmele gaining 21 yards on 10 carries. Rookie seventh-round pick Anthony Allen, who played at Georgia Tech, rushed for 11 yards on his one carry. Berry also caught two passes for 18 yards. … A former Ravens backup quarterback, Redman completed 4 of 8 passes for 58 yards and no touchdowns in the first half for the Falcons.