By Aaron Wilson, The Baltimore Sun
6:48 PM EDT, August 23, 2013
It was an unrelenting hit parade from the Carolina Panthers' defense, leaving behind a pile of fallen Ravens quarterbacks and running backs.
During the Ravens' 34-27 preseason loss Thursday night at M&T Bank Stadium, the offensive line struggled mightily at times as the Panthers finished with three sacks, eight tackles for losses and six quarterback hits.
NFL teams don't generally create specific game plans during the preseason, but the Ravens admittedly didn't adjust well to the Panthers' aggressive, gap-shooting mixture of blitz packages and line stunts.
"There was a lot of movement with linebackers flying around and defensive linemen moving around," offensive guard Jah Reid said. "That's football. People come to win, and you have to be prepared for that. They're solid and good upfront. They're very talented and we had our work cut out for us. You never want to lose a game, but we've got to take this game and learn from it."
Panthers star middle linebacker Luke Kuechly wasn't even touched when he crashed into running back Bernard Pierce for a forced fumble returned for a touchdown by linebacker Thomas Davis. On that play, Kuechly darted outside the left side of the offensive line and completely avoided having to lock up with Pro Bowl fullback Vonta Leach.
Ravens left offensive guard Kelechi Osemele, who's regarded as one of the top young offensive linemen in the NFL, was roughly tossed aside in the third quarter by Panthers rookie first-round defensive tackle Star Lotulelei when he sacked quarterback Joe Flacco.
The Panthers frequently got inside penetration with second-round defensive tackle Kawann Short beating Reid for a sack in the first half.
It wasn't a strong game overall for the Ravens' interior line with center Gino Gradkowski getting the start for the second time this preseason.
"It was one of those nights where we have to get better as a unit," Osemele said. "I don't feel like we communicated well enough. I feel like we could have been faster with our calls and things of that nature when they're running slants. They did a really good job of disguising it. Gino couldn't see it, I couldn't see. We couldn't really see anything.
"They shot gaps, nothing too complicated. They gambled a little bit. Kuechly had a really good play where he ran front-side and blew it up. It wasn't really fundamental football because they were gambling out there, but they good instincts and they did a really good job of using their hands. There's no excuses."
With Pro Bowl right offensive guard Marshal Yanda making his preseason debut following offseason rotator cuff surgery, the Ravens got off to a promising start in the first quarter on an game-opening drive where running back Ray Rice capped a physical nine-play, 69-yard drive with a 1-yard touchdown run behind an Osemele block.
Overall, though, the Ravens' offensive line didn't perform as well as it usually does.
And the pressure greatly contributed to the defending Super Bowl champions surrendering four turnovers.
"Yeah, they were slanting a bunch and hitting home on a few of them," Yanda said. "They were able to get some turnovers off of them, too. That's nothing to make excuses about, but it's preseason. We have to game plan for that. They did a good job, and we needed to make the adjustments faster. We need to do better.
"Obviously, we never want to turn over the football. It's the NFL, things happen and you need to learn from them. That's something we take pride in. If we have four turnovers and they have zero, it's not going to be good for us."
With Flacco having to hurry into his reads with defensive linemen bashing into him, it left little time for the $120.6 million quarterback to think.
"They were a good defense, a good front," Gradkowski said. "They had good stats for obvious reasons. They did a lot of things that gave us some trouble. We'll have to make some adjustments."
Ravens coach John Harbaugh wasn't critical of Gradkowski's play, but wasn't glowing in his initial assessment.
"I'm not sure specifically, but it felt good," Harbaugh said. "We seemed solid inside when he was in there, for the most part. Until you see the tape, you never know for sure."
Gradkowski got the start at center as he continues to try to stave off the challenge of A.Q. Shipley for the starting job. Shipley struggled with penalties during a loss to the Atlanta Falcons last week where he got the start. Gradkowski is still regarded as the frontrunner to win the competition.
"Yeah, I do," Gradkowski said when asked if he feels good about his efforts to be named the starter. "I feel like I've been having a good camp so far. I have to keep working hard and let it all play out."
Although preseason football generally lacks intensity, the Panthers' defense seemed to take an especially cranked-up approach that the Ravens were unable to handle.
Osemele acknowledged the possibility that future opponents might try to use this game as something of a blueprint for how to attack the Ravens' blocking schemes.
"Our opponents will watch this game and they'll try do the same things, but we'll be more prepared in the future," Osemele said. "I feel like our coaches do a great job of game-planning. We'll get everything shored up for the next time we're out there."
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