The most unsettling sight for the Ravens was not getting stuffed on two fourth-and-shorts or their inability to establish a running game. It was quarterback Joe Flacco frequently running for his life and then picking himself up off the turf.
Flacco took a beating against a blitz-happy Washington Redskins defense, but he finished the first half — and likely his preseason — by engineering a drive that the Ravens hope is a sign of things to come for the first-team offense. Flacco hit a diving Steve Smith on a 24-yard touchdown pass, the highlight of the Ravens' 23-17 victory in front of an announced 70,876 at a wet M&T Bank Stadium.
Wide receiver Deonte Thompson caught a 21-yard touchdown pass from backup Tyrod Taylor as the Ravens improved to 3-0 during the preseason.
Operating in the two-minute drill late in the first half, Flacco took the Ravens 74 yards on eight plays, relying exclusively on his two starting wide receivers. He completed six of eight passes, four to Torrey Smith and two to Steve Smith, who beat cornerback E.J. Biggers before making a diving catch in the back of the end zone.
"We moved the ball well tonight, but I would have liked to have scored some more," Flacco said. "We had fourth and less than a yard twice, and we have to be able to convert those. The first two games, we were able to run the ball well. So those are the types of conversions that we've got to get in the regular season because we are going to go for those."
Playing only the first half and absorbing two sacks and several other big hits, Flacco finished 16-for-23 for 180 yards, one touchdown and a 107.2 quarterback rating. He led the Ravens to points on two of six first-half possessions. On two other drives, the Ravens were stopped on fourth-and-1 in Washington territory.
Harbaugh traditionally doesn't play his veteran starters in the fourth preseason game, which will take place Thursday in New Orleans against the Saints. If that trend continues, Flacco will finish the preseason 29-for-45 for 345 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions.
Wide receivers Steve Smith (six catches for 80 yards) and Torrey Smith (four catches for 41 yards) also likely finished their preseasons on a strong note. Not only did Steve Smith have the touchdown catch, he also turned a short completion into a 30-yard gain in the first quarter by keeping his feet moving and running through several attempted tackles.
"I am getting more comfortable in the offense," Steve Smith said. "As far as Joe, he is a Super Bowl MVP quarterback and with him, I just have to do my job and make things easy for him. I am the one who has to raise my level of play and get on the same page with him. He is doing a great job and he is being very patient with me."
Overall, Harbaugh played his starting offense the entire first half and his starting defense one series into the third quarter. The results on offense were mixed; the defense had its best performance of the preseason.
"I think we're happy with how we've played, but I know that we are not satisfied," Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs said. "We are going to continue to work, improve … and get ready for Cincinnati."
Flacco showed toughness and got better as the half went on, but the line struggled mightily to deal with the Redskins' front and the pressure that Washington brought. With Ray Rice on the bench throughout and Bernard Pierce leaving the game early after taking a shot to the head, the Ravens rushed for just 17 yards on 12 carries in the first half.
Their struggles to run were encapsulated by the two times they were stuffed on fourth down. On fourth-and-1 on the Washington 49 on the Ravens' first drive, Pierce was stopped for a 1-yard loss. Later in the quarter, rookie Lorenzo Taliaferro was stuffed for no gain on a fourth-and-1.
"The Redskins blitzed everything in the first half — run and pass," Harbaugh said. "We didn't make them pay for that. We handled it OK and made some adjustments."
On defense, the Ravens' starters played well after allowing a 19-yard run by Alfred Morris on the Redskins' first play from scrimmage. Washington had a first-and-goal on its first possession, but nose tackle Brandon Williams got penetration to stop Morris on second down, and then rookie Terrence Brooks sacked quarterback Robert Griffin III on third down.
Washington settled for a 32-yard field goal by Kai Forbath, and its starters really never got close to sustaining a drive again. Griffin finished 5-for-8 for 20 yards. He was sacked three times and threw an interception to rookie C.J. Mosley on his lone possession of the second half.
With the Ravens' top three corners — Lardarius Webb, Jimmy Smith and Asa Jackson — sidelined with injuries, Chykie Brown and Dominique Franks started at cornerback and acquitted themselves well. The Ravens also used all sorts of combinations at corner, even experimenting with Brooks and fellow safety Anthony Levine playing corner.
The Redskins' top two receivers — DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon — combined for just two catches for 4 yards as Griffin was under siege throughout the first two-plus quarters. Elvis Dumervil, Timmy Jernigan and Brooks all had sacks.
"We wanted to see what we could do with just the front four rushing [in the first half], and we did a nice job with it," Ravens defensive coordinator Dean Pees said.