1) The Ravens began their song of 2017 on an ideal note.
If you saw that coming, you’re a wiser sage than I.
The day began with two overarching questions: 1) Is Joe Flacco healthy? 2) Could a reinforced defense be one of the best in the history of a franchise defined by defense?
In Week 1, the answers were yes and yes.
No, this wasn’t a perfect performance: Flacco never really threw downfield, the offensive line committed too many penalties and two more key players went down with leg injuries.
But it was a perfectly Ravens performance.
If you had to distill this franchise down to its on-field essence, you’d come up with a defense that inhales running backs, menaces quarterbacks and delivers timely turnovers, and an offense that protects leads by gobbling up clock.
That was exactly the team we saw on the field at Paul Brown Stadium, where the Ravens had not won in almost six years.
Man, that defense looked formidable, no matter where you turned. Terrell Suggs shed about five years. Brandon Williams and Michael Pierce shoved around multiple interior blockers at a time. New starting safety Tony Jefferson delivered rock-solid run support. Jefferson’s secondary-mates swarmed the ball every time Suggs and Co. forced Andy Dalton into a sketchy throw.
It’s way too early to say we’re staring at a reprise of the 2000 Super Bowl season. But that’s what this game felt like, and it’s a heck of a win to stick in the bank.
2) Flacco didn’t play particularly well, but he at least looked like himself.
For a few moments of an otherwise jubilant afternoon, Ravens fans felt their stomachs clench.
Flacco had just eaten a vicious hit from Bengals defensive end Carlos Dunlap, and he ducked into the medical tent on the Ravens sideline. Was he concussed? Did Dunlap jar the sore back that had sidelined Flacco for the entire preseason?
The relief was palpable when he emerged from the tent quickly and gave teammates a thumbs-up.
Flacco played a conservative game overall, attempting just 17 passes and rarely looking more than 10 or 15 yards downfield. His approach fit the situation, especially after the Ravens seized a 17-0 lead with two quick scores before halftime.
We really didn’t get to see how his back would respond if he aired out a few long throws. He connected with Jeremy Maclin on a sweet timing pattern for a 48-yard touchdown. Other than that, we didn’t get much chance to see how in sync he is with his reconfigured receiving corps.
Flacco threw behind Terrance West on an interception to start the second half, but that turnover was just as much on West, who needed to handle the ball more cleanly.
Overall, it was an incomplete referendum on the state of No. 5.
This game simply did not force him to stretch his skills. But at least he took a few hits and got up normally.
3) This team’s injury misfortune borders on the supernatural.
After an offseason marred by season-erasing injuries and the uncertainty over Flacco’s back, the Ravens entered their opener relatively healthy.
That happy state of affairs lasted less than a quarter.
Newly acquired running back Danny Woodhead had been the team’ s best offensive player, extending the first drive of the season with three timely catches for first downs. But just as visions of a functional passing attack began to dance in fans’ heads, Woodhead pulled up at the Cincinnati goal line, clutching the same left hamstring that had hampered him throughout the preseason.
If we thought the curse extended only to the offense, the fates quickly disabused us of any such notions.
Linebacker Za’Darius Smith played perhaps the best quarter of his NFL career to start the game. He sacked Dalton to end Cincinnati’s first drive, cleaning up the chaos Suggs had created rushing in from the opposite edge. Working in tandem, Smith and Suggs finally looked like the inside-outside rush tandem the Ravens had envisioned for years. Then on the Bengals’ second possession, Smith stuffed rookie running back Joe Mixon at the line of scrimmage with a fierce hit.
His excellent play followed the best training camp and preseason of his three-year career. So, of course, the Smith ended up writhing on the ground with a sprained knee early in the second quarter.
Injuries are endemic to football. But these two seemed particularly cruel given the excitement Woodhead and Smith had generated just before their fortunes turned.
The Ravens have plenty of defensive depth to compensate for Smith’s absence, though they don’t have another player with his exact combination of inside strength and acceleration to the quarterback. But they really don’t have anyone to fill in for Woodhead, who’s probably the best underneath receiver on the team.
4) The offensive line did its job but needs to cut down on the penalties.
The Ravens ate up most of the third quarter with a scoring drive built on 15 grinding runs. That alone earns the new offensive line a passing grade.
They probably won’t be thrilled if they finish the season averaging 3.7 yards a carry as they did on Sunday. But you have to look at that number in context. The Bengals knew they were going to run up the middle almost every play in the second half. Yet the Ravens moved the ball consistently enough to salt the game away.
John Harbaugh promised a renewed focus on running, aided by new offensive assistant Greg Roman. And with 42 rushing attempts, split almost evenly between West and Buck Allen, the Ravens delivered.
That said, I can’t imagine the coaching staff will be satisfied with the string of holding penalties that wiped out several nice gains and in one case, pushed the Ravens out of scoring position.
Ryan Jensen, starting at center for the first time, drew three of those 10-yard beauties. If he doesn’t clean up his game, he could be vulnerable to a challenge from recent acquisition Luke Bowanko.
5) Suggs remains a joy to watch in his 15th season.
Poor Bengals left tackle Cedric Ogbuehi entered the torture chamber, trying to contain Suggs one-on-one as he protected Dalton’s blind side.
The dean of the Ravens delivered one of his best late-career performances, headlined by two sacks and a forced fumble.
Teammates spent the offseason marveling at Suggs’ physical form. He was healthier than he’d been in years and more devoted to boot, grinding through daily conditioning sessions at the team’s training complex in Owings Mills.
But more than the sacks or the amusing gestures, I get a kick out of watching Suggs think his way through a game. No one is better at sniffing out a trick play or gauging the perfect moment to stop rushing and throw up a hand. Suggs did just that against Dalton, deflecting a pass to set up a crucial interception.
His football mind is every bit as exceptional as his football body.