Torrey Smith's blistering 77-yard touchdown sprint awakened a sleepy crowd and gave the home team an early lead against the Atlanta Falcons, but it couldn't save another shaky preseason performance by quarterback Joe Flacco and the Ravens' first-team offense.
Flacco and the offensive starters played the entire first half and even with the long catch-and-run by Smith on their first play of the second drive, they accounted for just 131 yards and three first downs on six full drives. Flacco also was intercepted by Asante Samuel on one of them, setting up a 2-yard touchdown run by Jacquizz Rodgers on the next play and a 13-point Ravens' halftime deficit.
However, backup quarterback Tyrod Taylor rallied the Ravens from a 16-point, fourth-quarter hole with touchdown passes to Aaron Mellette and Tandon Doss. Asa Jackson's 78-yard punt return for a touchdown then provided the winning points as the Ravens beat the Falcons, 27-23 in front of an announced 70,527 at M&T Bank Stadium.
The Ravens improved to 2-0 in the preseason though the play of the starters, specifically the ones on offense, gave the home crowd and their head coach very little to feel good about.
"That first half was about as poorly as we could play," said Ravens coach John Harbaugh, whose team finished with seven penalties for 68 yards after the coaching staff made that a point of emphasis during the week. "I can't remember us playing worse since we came here."
Harbaugh did take some solace in the performance of the backups in rallying the Ravens from a big deficit.
"I told the team in there, 'The ones give the twos and the threes a slap on the back and a hand,' because our guys came out and found a way to win the game," Harbaugh said. "That's really important. I'm excited about that. I like the fact that our guys fight and try to find a way to win. That's really the most important thing in a lot of ways."
Flacco finished 7-of-9 for 118 yards, one touchdown and one interception but three of the six drives that he directed resulted in three-and-outs and another ended with the ball in Samuel's hands after the quarterback tried to force the ball to Jacoby Jones.
In two preseason games, Flacco is 14-of-18 for 157 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions. He's led the team to points in just one of eight drives that started with him behind the center.
"We were just sloppy," Flacco said. "We never got into a rhythm. The one drive we did score on, but it was just one play. We were just sloppy – penalties, mistakes and stuff like that. We just weren't good, and we didn't play well. We've just got to go back to practice, continue to improve and when we come out here, we've got to play better."
Aside from Smith, who had two catches for 85 yards and scored his long touchdown on a slant route, the Ravens' other top receivers mostly struggled. Jones, fighting to lock down the No.2 receiving slot, was shut out for a second straight game. Brandon Stokley also made his debut after being signed earlier this week but did not make any catches. Tandon Doss was also held down until he connected with Taylor for a 5-yard touchdown catch midway through the fourth quarter to pull the Ravens within 23-20.
"What offensive team wants to [go] three-and-out?," said Jones. " You want to go out there and make plays, drive down and score the ball and keep the defense off the field. We've got to get that fixed."
Some empty seats at M&T Bank Stadium was an ever present reminder that this is still the preseason and drawing any definitive conclusions this early is foolish. But the frustration of the first-team offense was palpable. After getting tackled in the backfield on one play, running back Ray Rice, who finished with 10 rushing yards on eight carries and seven yards on two catches, ripped off his chinstrap and yelled in the direction of the sideline.
Rice, however, downplayed the starting offense's struggles, saying, "You're calling them struggles. I'm calling them preseason preseason work."
The first-team defense didn't play a whole lot better, allowing 255 yards of total offense in the first half, including 76 on the ground.
"That's something that has to happen. We have to stop the run," Harbaugh said. "I'm really disappointed because I felt like we'd come out, based on the way we've been practicing, and play a lot better. It wasn't that we were getting knocked around. It's the fact that we didn't do a good job of playing good team defense. We're better than that. The good news is those are things that you can correct over night. It has to get done if we're going to be the team that we hoped to be."
Falcons starting quarterback Matt Ryan went 8-for-15 for 97 yards and a touchdown and he provided a quick response to the Ravens' lone first-half touchdown. Repeatedly targeting cornerback Jimmy Smith, Ryan needed just seven plays to go 80 yards and put the Falcons ahead for good with an 8-yard touchdown pass to Julio Jones. On the drive, Jones beat Smith for catches of 32, 15 and eight yards. Steven Jackson also reeled off runs of 13 and 11 yards on the scoring drive.
The touchdown put the Falcons ahead 13-7 and was part of 20 unanswered points for the visitors.
"It wasn't perfect, but this is good for us. We're playing a good team," said Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs who played about a quarter and a half. "We knew they were going to make some plays, but it's all about how you respond. This was good for us – a little humble pie. We had a lot of success last week, with everything pretty much going our way. Atlanta is a very good team, and you can't make the mistakes we did. It's that simple."