NEW ORLEANS — Inside the Ravens’ locker room late Thursday night, wide receiver Kamar Aiken broke into a smile as he reflected on how to handle the anxiety of waiting to learn whether he has made the team.
With Saturday's 4 p.m. deadline for the 53-man roster closing in on the Ravens, Aiken and his fellow wide receivers likely made one decision even more difficult with their performances in the team's preseason finale, a 22-13 victory over the New Orleans Saints at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
“Our job was to go out there and make it tough on them when they make the decision,” said Aiken, who led the Ravens with four receptions for 57 yards. “Hopefully, it’s in my favor. That’s all I can do. I’m going to be with my family. They kind of ease my mind. That’s pretty much my game plan.”
A journeyman no longer eligible for the practice squad — he exhausted his three seasons of eligibility in previous stints with the Ravens, Buffalo Bills, New England Patriots and Chicago Bears — Aiken wasn’t the only wide receiver to make a strong case for a roster spot as the Ravens ended the preseason undefeated for the first time since 2009.
Wide receiver Deonte Thompson also impressed. In the second quarter, he broke sharply into his pattern across the middle of the end zone, creating separation behind the Saints’ secondary. Thompson made himself an easy target as backup quarterback Tyrod Taylor hit him in stride for an 8-yard touchdown pass.
“Deonte is real fast and he does a good job of getting and out of his routes,” Taylor said. “He did a good job, especially on the touchdown. That’s a play we’ve been practicing for a while. He came open at just the right time.”
The touchdown, Thompson's third in his past three preseason games, likely further cemented his place on the roster. Arguably the Ravens’ fastest player, Thompson is a strong candidate to survive Saturday’s final roster cuts for the third consecutive year.
The Ravens like Thompson’s explosiveness and, after he had some lapses in concentration over the past few years, are encouraged by his improved hands. Thompson caught a touchdown pass against the Washington Redskins in the third preseason game and returned a kickoff 108 yards for a score against the Dallas Cowboys the previous week.
“Deonte’s been playing so well. He’s done it, and stacking week after week,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. “He’s done the same thing in practice. It just says so much about where he’s at as a football player.”
Should the Ravens keep six wide receivers, Thompson and River Hill graduate Michael Campanaro are expected to have a slight edge over Aiken.
“These are tough decisions,” said Campanaro, a seventh-round draft pick out of Wake Forest. “There’s a lot of good players in our room. The competition has brought out the best in us.”
This was a relatively low-key affair in which players such as Thompson made their case to the Ravens’ brass that they deserve a place on the regular-season roster. The Ravens' only non-special teams starter to play in the game was rookie linebacker C.J. Mosley
Except for the uncertainty at wide receiver and in the secondary, little drama surrounds the Ravens’ looming roster decisions. The most interesting aspect of their next few days is the possibility of a trade for a cornerback, where injuries have hit Jimmy Smith (chest bruise, lungs), Lardarius Webb (lower back) and Asa Jackson (sprained ankle), or of waiver-wire claims as the Ravens try to improve the back end of their roster.
On the field Thursday, Taylor followed through on a vow he made days before to prove he can manufacture drives with his arm and feet.
Aside from a first-quarter interception in the Saints’ end zone on a pass to Aiken, which Aiken said he lost in the overhead lights of the domed stadium, Taylor had a generally solid performance. He completed 10 of 17 passes for 105 yards, one touchdown and one interception for a 71.9 quarterback rating.
He led the Ravens on four scoring drives, also displaying his ability to buy time with his elusiveness. The fourth-year player rushed for 24 yards on three carries, converting a pair of third downs on scrambles. Three plays before his touchdown pass to Thompson, Taylor’s 9-yard scramble gave the Ravens a first down at the Saints’ 10-yard line.
“I thought we played great. We moved the ball well for most of the game,” Taylor said. “We did some positive things. The line gave me time to throw, and we gained a lot of yards.
“I was encouraged. I would rather have touchdowns, but as far as critiquing the offense, we can getter if we turn those drives into touchdowns.”
Taylor was replaced after halftime by rookie quarterback Keith Wenning, a sixth-round pick from Ball State. Wenning completed four of his first six passes on his openiong drive but had a third-down pass at the Saints’ 14-yard line batted down by defensive end Tyrunn Walker.
The Ravens settled for a 32-yard field goal by Justin Tucker for a 19-13 lead. Tucker connected on five field goals, including a long of 45 yards.
Wenning is hoping to stick with the Ravens as their third quarterback, but the Ravens could choose to release him and attempt to sign him to their practice squad.
“It’s a decision they’ll make, and we’ll find out in the next couple of days,” Wenning said.
After a rough start to the preseason, Wenning had his best game Thursday. He completed eight of 13 passes for 117 yards, for a 90.9 quarterback rating.
“I made some plays,” Wenning said. “It was a good experience. The more you’re out there, the more comfortable you get.
“The extended time, getting more comfortable, kind of helps. I definitely felt good about it and want to build on it.”
The Saints’ lone touchdown came in the first quarter on a 3-yard pass from Luke McCown to running back Travaris Cadet for a brief 7-3 lead.
The Ravens responded with three scores in the second quarter to build a 16-13 lead by halftime, but one late error helped narrow the margin.
In the final seconds of the first half, undrafted rookie cornerback Tramain Jacobs was penalized for running into kicker Derek Dimke on a 54-yard try. With another shot, Dimke connected on the ensuing attempt from 49 yards.
Meanwhile, Campanaro had another solid game. The Clarksville native had a 39-yard catch up the right sideline late in the third quarter on a pass from Wenning. He also had a diving catch of a deflected pass in the fourth quarter. Campanaro finished with three receptions for 55 yards and returned three kickoffs for 78 yards and two punts for 20 yards.
“It was fun to go out there competing to win the game,” Campanaro said. “It was fun to go out there and get tired in the fourth quarter. I feel like I had a strong training camp and some good games in the preseason. It’s up to the coaches and the general manager [Ozzie Newsome]. I’m just hoping for the best. I’m hoping I’m here playing for the Ravens.”
On the ground, rookie running backs Lorenzo Taliaferro and Fitzgerald Toussaint churned out yards. A fourth-round pick from Coastal Carolina, Taliaferro rushed for 88 yards on 25 rushes. Toussaint, an undrafted free agent from Michigan who could be in line for a practice-squad job, was even more productive, with 103 yards on 16 carries.
The Ravens finished with 214 rushing yards on 49 carries against the Saints and the NFL's most productive running game this preseason.
“We rushed for a bunch of yards,” Harbaugh said. “Both of those guys [Toussaint and Taliaffero] run downhill. Our offensive line was absolutely dominant. They got after it. It’s good to see those young linemen play so well.”
Taliaferro led the Ravens in the preseason with 63 carries for 238 yards and one touchdown.
“I’m used to that, finishing games to help the team out, because I’m a bigger back and they count on me to finish games,” Taliaferro said. “I’m starting to understand the offense a little bit better. I looked at this game like I did other times when I started playing football in high school and in college. Even though I’m a rookie, I’ve looked at this entire training camp as an opportunity to play in the NFL. I try to be a complete back.”
The Ravens played new cornerback Derek Cox, who signed a one-year, $730,000 deal Wednesday, in the second half. After undergoing a crash course in the defensive playbook, the former San Diego Charger recorded three tackles and had one pass defended after getting off to a slow start while he tried to get his bearings with his new teammates.
Cox was cut by the Minnesota Vikings earlier this week. He struggled last season with the Chargers after signing a four-year, $20 million contract, with San Diego benching him three times before ultimately replacing him with Richard Marshall.
“It looked like he did well,” Harbaugh said of Cox. “Derek made a big play on third down; he had a breakup. The corners, all those guys played exceptionally well.”Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun