Joe Flacco, Ravens defense excel in dominant 33-7 preseason win over Rams

For Joe Flacco’s first drive of the 2018 preseason, he had a long ways to go. It was his only possession in charge of a long-derided Ravens offense Thursday night, and if his response is any kind of table setter for a season of necessarily heightened expectations, Baltimore’s plans for this fall should include more feast than famine.

In a game-opening drive against the Los Angeles Rams that covered 70 yards and ended in the end zone, Flacco passed for 71. (A 15-yard penalty on right guard James Hurst midway through accounted for the funky math.) The 33-year-old called on his old reliables, the short passes and dump-offs that have been become punch lines through the team’s postseason drought, but also improvised for gotta-have-it, chain-moving throws.

At the end of a game the Ravens won, 33-7, it was hard not to be optimistic. The offense was efficient under Flacco, then Lamar Jackson, at least early. The defense swallowed the Rams in their half of the field, rarely letting them cross the 50-yard line.

“Very pleased with the result, but more pleased with the process,” coach John Harbaugh said. “We’re just happy we’re a better team now than we were four days ago. We need to continue to improve.”

The context of those compliments matters. Los Angeles played mostly backups. The Ravens were the first to open training camp and, along with the Chicago Bears, the NFL’s only team to enter Thursday night’s crowded preseason schedule having already played a game. Even if the Ravens and Rams seemed to trade the better-team label in Monday and Tuesday’s joint practices at Owings Mills, there is no substitute for repetitions, and by now the Ravens have a bunch more than 30 NFL teams.

In a preseason home opener that unveiled their forays into the future — new 4K ultra-high-definition video boards in each corner of M&T Bank Stadium, a new digital-ticketing system — the Ravens mainly hewed to tradition Thursday. Flacco, who watched from the sideline as Robert Griffin III led the starting offense in Thursday’s Pro Football Hall of Fame Game, took the field with the offense’s expected starters after the opening kickoff. (One notable exception: right guard Marshal Yanda, who returned to practice only this week.)

It was a one-and-done showing for Flacco and Co., but they went far enough to sustain enthusiasm until the Ravens’ next preseason game, an Aug. 20 matchup in Indianapolis against the Colts. His first pass looked effortless, a 12-yarder to rookie tight end Hayden Hurst, whose fourth-string status on the team’s unofficial depth chart will need some revising. After short gains on a scramble and carry by running back Alex Collins, Flacco found running back Buck Allen in the flat for a first-down pass near midfield.

Hurst’s 15-yard penalty for a chop block looked like a drive-stopper, but Flacco’s new targets were there to help. So was a Los Angeles defense that counted only outside linebacker Samson Ebukam among its regular starters.

A simple slant pass to wide receiver John Brown, one free-agent signing, was followed by a more complicated pass to Michael Crabtree, another free-agent signing, in which Crabtree broke off his route and freed himself on the left sideline for an out-of-the-pocket Flacco and a 30-yard gain. Three plays later, the Ravens were in the end zone, celebrating a 6-yard pass from Flacco (5-for-7 overall) to fullback and sometimes defensive tackle Patrick Ricard. The 10-play drive had taken all of 4 minutes, 46 seconds.

“It was good,” Flacco said. “The preseason games are always weird because you know you’re not going to play a ton, but you have to get ready like it’s a regular-season game. There can be pressure to go out there and do well. Listen, our guys are really showing up. We’ve had a great camp, and it was good to come out here and see it carry over into a game.”

The Rams found starting offensive drives as difficult as stopping the Ravens’. For good reason: All-Pro running back Todd Gurley didn’t play. Neither did quarterback Jared Goff or left tackle Andrew Whitworth, both of them Pro Bowl selections.

Instead, leading Los Angeles was quarterback Sean Mannion, he of of the career 65.0 quarterback rating. Stopping Los Angeles was much of the Ravens’ first-string defense, including, surprisingly, cornerback Jimmy Smith, back in game action for the first time since tearing his Achilles tendon in December.

The disparity in talent and experience was apparent. Outside linebacker Matthew Judon got to Mannion for the Ravens' first drive-ending sack, and rush linebacker Terrell Suggs for their second. The Rams moved only as far as their 36-yard line in either drive.

For the half, they finished with 16 passing yards and 45 overall.

“We’re all trying to get our timing right,” Suggs said. “We’re trying to get our chemistry back. We want to start fast and finish fast. This is our first game with all of us playing together. It wasn’t good, it wasn’t bad, it wasn’t terrible. It was a good starting point.”

The Ravens fared better with their own backups. With Flacco out, Jackson came in. In two plays, the offense was back in the red zone, an immediate improvement on the first-round draft pick’s uneven debut in Canton, Ohio. A well-executed trap play led by Hurst upfield sprung Collins for 23 yards. A jump ball down the middle ended in wide receiver Chris Moore’s hands, the 36-yard gain taking the Ravens to the Los Angeles 14.

On third-and-5, Jackson produced a highlight that looked hand-picked from his Lousville reel. An inside pocket push turned Jackson loose, and he broke right, into open grass. The spying linebacker, Bryce Hager, had no chance of containing Jackson, and with some helpful downfield blocking from wide receiver Janarion Grant, Jackson needed to beat only Troy Hill. One cut later, and the cornerback was posterized, and Jackson in the end zone.

“It was a great run,” Harbaugh said. “I thought he was tackled twice, and then he wasn’t. So that was good. You can always appreciate that if he’s on your team.”

The Ravens could’ve won on just the strength of their field goals, such was the team’s defensive dominance. (They ended with four makes on six attempts, with kickers Justin Tucker and Kaare Vedvik both hitting a pair and missing one.)

Of the Rams' first nine drives, six went 7 yards or fewer. Two possessions ended in turnovers: one nice second-quarter interception by cornerback Maurice Canady and a third-quarter fumble recovered by safety DeShon Elliott after a strip-sack by outside linebacker Tim Williams. Not until the end of Los Angeles' 13th drive, with 6:59 remaining, did the visitors score.

Even toward the end of one of the Ravens’ more lopsided wins in their 10-game preseason run, they made things interesting. A 32-yard touchdown pass from Griffin to Breshad Perriman was something of an atonement for the former first-round pick at wide receiver, his jumping, contested catch helping some forget a dropped past against the Bears that led to an interception. The grab pushed the Ravens’ lead to 33-7 and the edge in total yards even further apart. At game’s end, it was 403 to 170, and even that felt closer than expected.

jshaffer@baltsun.com

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