Third preseason game equals dress rehearsal for Ravens starters

Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco gathers with teammates including members of the offensive line after practice.
Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco gathers with teammates including members of the offensive line after practice. (Algerina Perna, Baltimore Sun)

Over the last two weeks, the Ravens' starters have remained in preseason form.

The first-team offense has gotten in the end zone once on seven total drives. The first-team defense has barely touched the opposing quarterback while the secondary has allowed a receiver to eclipse the 100-yard plateau in consecutive weeks.

With the starters expected to play sparingly — if at all — in next week's preseason finale against the St. Louis Ramsat the Edward Jones Dome, the Ravens' Thursday night matchup with the Jacksonville Jaguars at M&T Bank Stadium is essentially their last chance to build some momentum heading into the Sept. 10 season opener against the Cincinnati Bengals.

"I guess that's the way we're trained to kind of look at it, just because [this] is the game [starters] play the most in," said Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco, who, like the rest of the starters, could play as many as three quarters versus the Jaguars. "We want to go out there and we want to play well, but at the same time, we need to clean some things up and see what we're getting better at and see what we still need to work on maybe even a little bit more. So, like I said, I think we're kind of trained to maybe look at it like a dress rehearsal, and we want to go out there and let it all go and be successful."

The Ravens are 1-1 so far this preseason, but beyond the end result Thursday, there are several areas that will garner the full attention of Ravens coach John Harbaugh and his coaching staff:

Sustaining and finishing drives

In the Ravens' 31-7 victory against the Atlanta Falcons in the preseason opener, Flacco and the first-team offense didn't get a first down on their first three drives. In a 27-12 loss to the Detroit Lions last week, Flacco directed three extended drives, the shortest one ending at midfield. However, the end result was two field goals and a Sam Koch punt.

"I think the biggest thing … is just finishing off drives — getting down in the red zone and putting touchdowns on the board," Flacco said.

Flacco has been solid, completing 16-of-24 passes for 167 yards, a touchdown and no interceptions. Pro Bowl running back Ray Rice has been extremely quiet in limited opportunities with eight rushes for 16 yards and two catches for 11 yards.

The performance of the offensive line, which wasn't good against Atlanta but improved significantly — at least in pass blocking — last week versus Detroit, will be the biggest key for the offense in being able to finish drives in the opponent's end zone. A holding penalty on tackle Michael Oher and a sack of Flacco helped stall drives short of a touchdown last week.

Generate a pass rush

A big concern coming into the season after the offseason Achilles injury to reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year Terrell Suggs has only intensified as the Ravens have two sacks and six quarterback hits through two preseason games.

Of course, this is the preseason and first-year Ravens' defensive coordinator Dean Pees is not going to scheme for teams and unveil elaborate blitzes that will undoubtedly be in the game plan come Sept. 10. But it still could ease some angst for the Ravens to generate some steady pressure off a four-man rush.

Looking quite comfortable in the pocket, Matt Ryan and Matthew Stafford combined to go 21-of-30 for 339 yards and three touchdowns versus the Ravens' defense in the first two games. Each quarterback played just four drives.

Asked about the pass rush Tuesday, middle linebacker Ray Lewis said: " Whether it's coming from blitz packages or just base defenses, if he was just beating his man one-on-one … I don't really know how to assess it past that. I think the way to really assess it is to just go in and finish this preseason game."

Get the secondary's swagger back

This preseason, the Ravens haven't game-planned or mixed up coverages or double-covered anyone. Their defense has been as vanilla as it gets and the Falcons and Lions exploited that to the tune of 851 total yards.

The Falcons' Julio Jones caught six balls for 109 yards and a touchdown in a quarter, and the Lions' Calvin Johnson hauled in five passes for 111 yards and a touchdown in about a quarter and a half.

Still, it has to be a little disconcerting watching Cary Williams and Jimmy Smith, who are competing for the starting cornerback job opposite Lardarius Webb, get victimized for big plays on numerous occasions. After all, the Ravens' secondary was billed as the strength of the defense and Webb said it's the best group of defensive backs in the league.

"Everybody wants to say this and that, but it's the preseason. We're learning," said Smith. "In the real games, we're going to have schemes and we're going to do different things. In the preseason, you line up, you play camp rules, and you just play football."

Maintain good health

The Ravens are relatively healthy going into Thursday's game and more than anything mentioned above Harbaugh's priority will be keeping it that way.

The loss of Suggs was a huge blow obviously, but the team's two biggest injury setbacks in training camp have been a likely season-ending ankle injury to reserve nose tackle Ryan McBean and the ongoing calf issues with reserve offensive tackle Jah Reid.

By Monday afternoon, the Ravens will have to trim their roster from 90 to 75. Then by next Friday, the day after their preseason finale in St. Louis, they'll need to get their roster down to the prerequisite 53. Harbaugh has long said that the Ravens will keep the best 53 players, and team officials are hoping that health concerns don't play a heavy role in their roster decisions.

"It's getting a little tense. Guys want to make this team," Harbaugh said. "Everybody can't be. If they can't be part of this, they want to be a part of a team somewhere in this league. So, it's time now, and they want to put good tape out there."



Baltimore Sun reporter Edward Lee contributed to this article.