Baltimore Sun columnist Mike Preston gives the Ravens mixed grades in the team's 13-7 win in their opening game of the 2016 season
There is more of a sense of relief than happiness after the Ravens beat the Buffalo Bills 13-7 in the 2016 season opener Sunday.
If there is truly a time when a "win is still a win," regardless of the quality of play, it's in the first game. Because this victory had the feel of a fifth preseason game. Except this time the starters played all four quarters.
These games mean something, even though there are still a lot of lingering questions about the Ravens.
"It felt great to get a win," Ravens tight end Dennis Pitta said. "It wasn't pretty and it wasn't perfect, but we did what we had to do to get the job done and it feels great to win that first one."
If the Ravens had played this poorly in late November or early December in the midst of a playoff race, alarms would have been set off. But it's only the second week of September, and everybody gets a reprieve. Sort of.
This isn't time for gloom. That only happens when a team loses the season opener, and everybody is grumpy for another week. Every team looks ahead to its opener from the time their 2015 season ends through the spring, NFL draft, various mini-camps and the preseason.
Losers have to grudgingly work for another week. The Ravens can at least call themselves a work in progress. After going 5-11 last season and missing the playoffs for the second time in three years, they needed a win, any win, to at least feel good about themselves.
So, it wasn't as big a deal Sunday that they had no consistency in the running game, had suspect play calling on offense and couldn't muster a constant pass rush. They won, and for the next 24 hours, that's all that matters.
"Our guys will go to work and will continue to get better," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "But the point of emphasis is they did what the had to do today to get the job done and make the plays that they needed to be made in this game, and I'm proud of them for that."
Harbaugh's words belie that he knows better. The Ravens can get away with this type of performance against Buffalo and maybe next week in Cleveland, but not against the better teams. He also knows that it's better to teach his players after a season opening win than a loss.
The biggest problem with Sunday's win is that no one knows for sure if the Ravens are still that much better than last season. They showed more speed on offense with receivers Mike Wallace and Breshad Perriman contributing big plays down field in the passing game, and they have two promising offensive linemen in rookies Ronnie Stanley and Alex Lewis.
On defense, the Ravens held Buffalo to 160 yards of total offense. The Ravens were faster and quicker than a year ago, and cornerbacks Jimmy Smith and Shareece Wright actually made plays.
If you listened to some of the media talk in the locker room, or Harbaugh at times, it was as if the Ravens were the 1985 Chicago Bears (minus the pass rush). In all honesty, the Bills were as inept on offense as the Ravens were dominant on defense.
Buffalo had just two passing plays over 15 yards. Every running play appeared to be off tackle, and the Bills best strategy was quarterback Tyrod Taylor scrambling around. There were times when Taylor looked liked he had drawn up plays in the dirt.
The Ravens, who generated 308 total yards, were just as bad at times on offense. They had several pre-snap penalties. There was very little rhythm in the passing game and the offensive line couldn't get movement off the line in short yardage situations.
As expected, quarterback Joe Flacco showed rust. More disturbing was his lack of acceleration to escape pressure, and the play calling of offensive coordinator Marc Trestman.
There were times when the Ravens should have been in a hurry-up offense and they were walking to the line of scrimmage. Why was Flacco play-action faking on a third-and-8 when everyone in the stadium knew he had to pass? Can they please toss that toss play, the one they ran about six times, out of the playbook for the next couple of games? What's up with the cadence issues?
Okay, okay. They won. Right?
That's the beauty of the first game. The problems might be glaring, but at least there is time to improve. The Ravens were aware of their shortcomings.
"We have to improve our passing game, we have to become more precise protection-wise, timing-wise, throwing- and catching-wise, and we're going to," Harbaugh said.