Mike Preston: After success in Green Bay, Ravens should stay with youth movement

The future might have arrived Sunday for the Ravens.

They used a lot of young players in their 23-0 win against Green Bay at Lambeau Field, but it’s not clear if it was because they needed to pump some fresh life into the roster or the Packers were just that bad.

Regardless, all signs were positive.

“One of the big parts of the game was to put as much speed on the field as we could,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. “They spread you out. They put receivers around the quarterback that can run. We wanted to be as fast as we could.

“Those guys need to be on the field. They played well. We've got a lot of good young players.”

All of those midseason rookie report cards are meaningless because this is the best time to insert young players, especially rookies. Ideally, it’s a luxury to have rookies sit, watch and learn for the first half of the season.

They’ve been through a long, tough and at times painful senior season in college, which includes the regular season, possibly bowl games, maybe the Senior Bowl and excruciating workouts before the NFL scouting combine.

They get little rest before their NFL season starts, which is why so many hit the proverbial rookie wall late in the season. But that hasn’t been the case in Baltimore this season.

The 2017 rookie class got extensive playing time against the Packers and it wasn’t just in garbage time. The group played early and often, and second- and third-year players like defensive linemen Willie Henry and Carl Davis, linebackers Matthew Judon, Za’Darius Smith and Patrick Onwuasor, and cornerback Maurice Canady also got plenty of playing time.

On offense, young tight ends like Nick Boyle and Maxx Williams played more than veteran Benjamin Watson, and receiver Chris Moore took 33 snaps. Boyle is the best blocking tight end on the roster and if Moore becomes more consistent, he might eventually emerge as a deep threat.

Onwuasor led the Ravens in tackles Sunday with 10 while Henry and Judon each had two sacks. Judon joked about getting a sacks incentive clause in his next contract.

"I have to ask my agent,” said Judon, laughing. “But we got 55 [Terrell Suggs] out there and Z [Smith] and Earl [Willie Henry]. Everybody is working hard and we're staying after it. The more I am out there, the more impact I can have on the game. Sometimes I am blitzing, other times in coverage. It's hard for the offense to know what I’m doing but yes, this was one of the best games I have had so far."

The Ravens secondary appears to be getting stronger. After years of bringing in cornerbacks off the street early in the regular season, the Ravens had a good regular cast headed into 2017 with cornerbacks Jimmy Smith and Brandon Carr and safeties Eric Weddle and Tony Jefferson.

This unit had been the best on the team, but rookie Marlon Humphrey, the team’s top pick out of Alabama, and Canady are pushing Carr and other veterans such as No. 3 safety Lardarius Webb for playing time.

Humphrey took 49 snaps against Green Bay and was targeted five times while allowing two catches. He had one interception and knocked down two passes. It might be his time to start. Canady had 32 out of 67 snaps. Canady and Humphrey are strong and physical and can play bump and run.

“I’m happy at the way they’re performing and the way they’re coming along,” Jimmy Smith said of the young players in the secondary. “We have a lot of depth at corner this year. We’re overflowing with depth. To get them in and the fact that they compete at a high level is very rewarding for us.”

Outside linebacker Tim Williams, a third-round pick out of Alabama, took 19 snaps, which is extensive action for him because he has been injured so often this season. He had only two tackles but twice flushed Green Bay quarterback Brett Hundley out of the pocket.

Fellow rookie outside linebacker Tyus Bowser took six snaps. If Bowser and Williams can play quality minutes during the remaining six games, it will help Suggs.

It was a strong showing by the young Ravens on Sunday. Green Bay was pathetic on offense playing without its two top running backs, two best offensive tackles and Aaron Rodgers, one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL.

But the Ravens said they wanted to get more young players involved and the plan was to make the infusion during the bye week.

It worked.

mike.preston@baltsun.com

twitter.com/MikePrestonSun

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