For the past couple of weeks, the Ravens' offensive starters have answered the question with little more than a dismissive shrug.
No, they are not concerned that the offense has gotten very little going in about three quarters of work. They don't think it's a big deal that quarterback Joe Flacco has thrown one more interception than touchdown pass. They are not worried that Ray Rice has found yards and running room hard to come by or that the team's other receivers behind Torrey Smith have done nothing against a first-team defense.
Not long after the Ravens' 27-23 comeback victory over the Atlanta Falcons last Thursday, the tone of several players started to change.
"We got to get our feet wet for real now," said wide receiver Jacoby Jones, who has caught one pass for 4 yards this preseason.
Heading into Thursday's nationally televised preseason game against the Carolina Panthers at M&T Bank Stadium, the Ravens' intent is clear. In what is expected to be the last extended playing time for the starters before the Sept. 5 regular-season opener in Denver, the Ravens are focused on developing some momentum and rhythm on offense.
It is something that has eluded Flacco and company for the first two preseason games as penalties, poor run blocking and subpar execution have made it difficult to sustain drives and put up points.
"I think it's very important just for us to play well, more so than anything else," offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell said. "Any unit that takes the field, we want them to go out there and be in sync, move the ball and put some points on the board. We're looking forward to that. In the third game, [starters] typically … end up playing a little bit more. It depends on what [coach John Harbaugh] wants to do in that regard. But, we want to see our effectiveness and our execution climb up a notch or two."
Flacco has been at the helm for eight full drives this preseason, not counting a kneel-down, and only one has resulted in points. That was the 77-yard touchdown completion to Smith (Maryland) on the Ravens' first play of their second drive against the Falcons last week.
Of the other seven drives, two have resulted in interceptions and the other five have ended with punts by Sam Koch. On their seven non-scoring drives, Flacco and the first-team offense have failed to get a first down three times and twice gotten only one first down before punting.
"We're not going to overreact to something like this and get all crazy and things like that," said Flacco, who is 14-of-18 for 175 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions this preseason. He's expected to play into the third quarter Thursday. "We'll get through this. We feel like we've had a great camp, and we're continuing to get better. This is one of those things we'll have to look at and make sure we improve on."
Flacco downplayed the perception that the offense is struggling, insinuating that it's more of a media-driven narrative. Rice did the same, saying after last Thursday's game that "You're calling them struggles — I'm calling them preseason work. That's what you work on in the preseason. If you don't have things to work on in the preseason, then obviously you're the greatest team in mankind."
It's certainly true that the Ravens haven't asked Flacco and the offense to do a whole lot, keeping the play-calling as vanilla as possible because they don't want to put anything on film that will help the Broncos' preparations for them on Sept. 5. For example, Flacco has attempted just one pass over 10 yards.
The two interceptions stand out, but Flacco's preseason numbers aren't significantly different than some of the league's other top quarterbacks, like the Broncos' Peyton Manning (13-of-20 for 176 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions), the New England Patriots' Tom Brady (18-of-20 for 172 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions) and the Falcons' Matt Ryan (14-of-24 for 186 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions).
But the offense's inability to sustain drives has been disappointing to Harbaugh and Caldwell, who have noted the unit's shortcomings so far that go well beyond the passing game. As a whole, the Ravens are averaging just over three yards per carry on the ground and Rice has needed 11 carries to accumulate 17 rushing yards. Penalties have also hurt the Ravens, as two calls on A.Q. Shipley, who is battling with Gino Gradkowski for the starting center job, stalled drives last week.
"We haven't game-planned either one of these games," Harbaugh said. "The last game — we just looked at [the Falcons] for one day, a little bit at what they do, and played what we would call a camp game. We're not trying to scheme anything. We're just trying to get good at the fundamentals and then evaluate our players. But, at the same time, we didn't play fundamentally very well, and that's the issue. I'm not worried about scheme or result as much as how you play. And we put ourselves in a hole too much to even get a look at ourselves. You can't be in first-and-25. You can't turn the ball over. All of those things we've got to do a better job of."
Not having Pro Bowl guard Marshal Yanda, who should make his preseason debut Thursday after offseason shoulder surgery, certainly has been a factor, as has working in so many new pass catchers with Anquan Boldin now in San Francisco and tight end Dennis Pitta potentially lost for the season with a dislocated right hip.
But the players know that none of that will matter come Sept. 5, which is why a sense of urgency has taken hold.
"Just the point of preseason and training camp in general is to find our identity and see what we're going to be, and work on a couple of things that we're going to do throughout the year," said Pro Bowl fullback Vonta Leach. "We run a lot of basic stuff. I think it's 'be ready when it's Week One versus Denver.' That's what we're doing, that's what everything we're geared toward."
Asked if he was at all concerned about the offense's sluggish play, Leach smiled broadly: "I feel very good where we're at," he said. "We just have a few things we have to clean up and get better at. But overall, I like where we're at."
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