Baltimore Sun columnist Mike Preston talks about the Ravens 28-27 loss to the Oakland Raiders. (Kevin Richardson/Baltimore Sun video)
There was more to learn about the Ravens in their first loss of the season Sunday than in their previous three victories.
The Ravens took a step up in class and lost, 28-27, to the Oakland Raiders, but left a favorable impression. Before the 2016 season is over, they could be a good team — barring major injuries.
This is not to say the Ravens (3-1) are headed to the Super Bowl or will necessarily even make the playoffs, but they should show major improvement from their 5-11 record in 2015. There were questions about this team after opening the season with wins against Buffalo, Cleveland and Jacksonville, teams that entered Sunday with a combined record of 1-8.
But the Ravens took Oakland (3-1) to the final seconds, and their defense slowed down the NFL's No. 2-ranked offense. The Ravens compiled 412 yards of total offense and they did it without two starters on the offensive line and quarterback Joe Flacco being bounced around like a pinata.
There were a lot of things to like, but still enough problems which need to be fixed. Good teams don't commit 10 penalties for 105 yards or allow big plays which contribute to several touchdowns. If a defense wants to be really great, it can't allow a six-play, 66-yard drive by an opponent on its last possession of the game.
Playoff-contending teams make other teams sweat in the closing minutes, not vice-versa.
"We kept the pressure on ourselves too much," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "What we needed to do was put the pressure on our opponents more than ourselves. Those are the things that hurt us. ...Those are the things we have to do better and play the kind of football we are capable of playing to win these kinds of games.
They can do that with a few modifications, one of which took place Sunday. The Ravens benched starting running back Justin Forsett for Terrance West. Good move. Here's a better one: Starting cornerback Shareece Wright has been struggling for three straight weeks. Now, it's time to allow rookie Tavon Young to start. The kid has played well since Day 1 of training camp.
The Ravens might also want to serve a similar notice to safety Lardarius Webb. On this team, especially in the secondary, few jobs are safe, except for safety Eric Weddle and cornerback Jimmy Smith.
Harbaugh also might want to suggest to offensive coordinator Marc Trestman that he loosen his collar and go down field a bit more. Every week the Ravens come out with the dink-and-dunk passing offense, and they don't open it up until it falters. I understand more teams are playing zone against the Ravens, which prohibits the long ball, but Trestman shouldn't let other teams dictate to him.
If the Ravens want to get opposing defenses out of Cover 2, run the football. Right Mr. Flacco?
"I think that's just who we are right now," Flacco said. "We've just got to get jelled up more, so we're getting some more yards after the catch and things like that on some of those short passes. We were hoping we could get by some of those quarter safeties a little bit, get by them deep and it just never happened."
The assumption here is that there will be more intermediate and deep passing routes in the Ravens offense Sunday against the Washington Redskins, because by that time, rookies Alex Lewis and Ronnie Stanley will be healthier and back on the left side of the offensive line.
I know what you're thinking: Can two rookies really make that much of a difference? Here's my question to you: Did you watch the game?
The Raiders had only two sacks, but Flacco took one of those Kyle Boller beat downs in which Oakland had no mercy.
But that's one of the things that impressed me most Sunday. Offensively, the Ravens still played well enough to win. There has always been a debate in Baltimore whether Flacco is elite, but that's irrelevant. He's a winner. Regardless of the score, if he is on the field, the Ravens have a shot at winning.
While he couldn't finish the job Sunday, there were other positive developments. For the first time since injuring his Achilles last season, receiver Steve Smith showed burst and acceleration, especially on his 52-yard touchdown reception.
"At the beginning of the season, in the first two games, I was on a pitch count," Smith said. "Now, I'm able to play and not even think about it."
I liked the running game as well. The more West touches the ball, the stronger he gets. The Ravens will improve even more once rookie Kenneth Dixon returns from a leg injury. Center Jeremy Zuttah dominated in the second half and turned in his best game of the season.
The Ravens finally got fullback Kyle Juszczyk involved in the passing game, and that should take some of the pressure off Dennis Pitta in the second half of the season. Receiver Mike Wallace continues to be a weapon, even though his boneheaded taunting penalty late in the game is unacceptable for a player who has been in the league eight years.
The most impressive aspect of the Ravens' performance was the play of the defense. Take away the turnovers and mistakes committed by the offense and special teams, and the Ravens played well. Those guys in the front seven are getting better every week, and once-injured veteran outside linebackers Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil look healthier.
After the first three weeks of the season, it was hard to get a read on this team. It won, but it played some really bad teams. It's hard to predict how the Raiders will finish this season, but they have a top quarterback, two good receivers and a strong offensive line.
After last season, the conclusion here was that it would take the Ravens two years to become a serious contender in the AFC again. That feeling hasn't changed, but at least the signs of improvement are evident.