Ravens coach John Harbaugh has mostly stuck to his script from previous preseasons, which means Saturday's game against the Washington Redskins will be quarterback Joe Flacco's final dress rehearsal for the Sept. 7 regular-season opener against the Cincinnati Bengals.
Flacco hasn't played in a preseason finale since his rookie year in 2008 and it's hard to imagine that would change this year, not with the Ravens opening the regular season with three divisional games in a 15-day span.
But Flacco and the first-team offense should get an extended run against the Redskins Saturday night at M&T Bank Stadium, and the quarterback clearly recognizes the importance of finishing strong.
"We're going to play into the second half and you want to go out there and you want to do a good job," Flacco said. "I think we're ready and we're poised to do that. We've got a good football team, we've been practicing great. I expect us to go out there and play very well. That's what we're going to do, and it's definitely what we want to do. We want to go out there and play well and have the confidence to go into the regular season feeling like we're ready to go."
Through two games, coordinator Gary Kubiak's new-look offense has delivered solid results. The commitment to a physical running game has been obvious as the Ravens have averaged an NFL-high 194.0 yards per game on the ground and run the ball 79 times. Flacco has been efficient, completing 13-of-22 passes for 165 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions.
The offense is "very balanced," said wide receiver Torrey Smith, who caught a 19-yard touchdown pass in the Ravens' 37-30 victory over the Dallas Cowboys last Saturday. "I think that we're definitely built around running the ball. We're doing a great job so far. It's about improvement and getting the timing down on the receiving end. I think we're getting better each and every day, and I love it. It's balanced, and it's an opportunity for big plays."
Flacco has led six total drives and the Ravens have scored points on four of them with two Justin Tucker field goals and two touchdowns. He didn't take his first snap against the Cowboys until there was three minutes, 25 seconds left in the first quarter. Flacco misfired on his first three attempts, but he wound up leading the Ravens to points on three of the final four drives of the first half.
"He played well [against Dallas]. He's played well all through training camp," Harbaugh said of Flacco. "He made some good decisions not throwing some passes, too, in terms of just not making bad decisions and making safe decisions. He's played well, and he has to continue to improve like everybody else."
The Redskins figure to give the Ravens a much better gauge of where their offense is at. In the preseason opener, the San Francisco 49ers had six defensive regulars on the sideline and the players who did start didn't stay on the field for long. The Cowboys played their starters far longer, but their defense is supposed to be one of the worst in the NFL this season.
Flacco, however, has seen more than enough in his limited opportunities to feel good about the direction of the offense.
"I don't think it's been hard to assess," Flacco said. "We only had one drive [against San Francisco] and we did what we were supposed to do. In the Dallas game, we didn't start very fast and we weren't out there that much, but I think we reacted well. We responded well with what had happened, and I think we did a good job. Obviously, there are things to clean up and we'll like to be a little bit better, probably."
If there is an overriding reason for optimism, it's been the early play of the offensive line. Flacco was hit a few times against Dallas, but he's still yet to be sacked. The running backs have also found plenty of room and space en route to averaging 4.9 yards per carry.
While Harbaugh cautioned getting carried away by two games, he understands the focus on the results after a season in which the Ravens rushed for a franchise-worst 1,328 yards and Flacco was sacked a career-high 48 times.
"I feel great behind them right now," Flacco said of the offensive line. "They're playing really well, they're playing really fast. They're mentally freed up to the point where they can just go be physical. As an offensive lineman, that's a big thing, because that's your No.1 job. When you don't get to do that and you're kind of sitting back and trying to sort things out, then things can go the wrong way. That's not happening."
Starting left guard Kelechi Osemele said that the offensive line is still in the "beginning stages," but the group has been rejuvenated with the insertion of center Jeremy Zuttah and right tackle Rick Wagner, and the return of a run-first mentality behind Kubiak.
"I feel like, as an offensive line, it's good to set the tone early and come off the ball, knock guys off the ball, assert your dominance, and, obviously, the play-action off of that and the passes off that," Osemele said. "With the linebackers getting up in there, you have early success with the run game. I'm really confident."
Flacco was feeling good about things as well. He defended Cleveland Browns rookie quarterback Johnny Manziel, who directed the middle finger at the Washington Redskins' sideline Monday night, admitting that he "flipped" teammate Terrell Suggs off a day earlier.
He joked about his penchant for saying "I don't know" in interviews and when asked about his comfort with Zuttah, Flacco said, "I guess I feel good under there."
He also made it clear that he was looking forward to Saturday night.
"Every game is a test. Every Sunday is our test on how we prepared the week leading up to it," he said. "These guys are a good team and they have a good defense. We're going to have to be on top of our [game] in order to play well."
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