This was not the Joe Flacco we saw in Week 1 of last season.
We’ve been saying so all summer and it proved out in a game that mattered — Flacco looks far healthier than he did last season, when he spent the first half recuperating from a back injury.
His 121.7 passer rating in the pouring rain told only part of the story Sunday. Flacco also evaded pressure and made throws on the move, playing like a young quarterback rather than the lumbering whipping boy of recent seasons.
He completed five of six passes for 80 yards on the first drive, including a deftly placed 29-yard completion to John Brown on which he rolled all the way to his right before throwing back to his left.
Flacco has tried not to get ahead of himself all summer, downplaying his good health and urging cautious optimism until the beginning of the real games. But it was obvious how much the quick start meant to him.
“I think the first drive that we had today was really important for us,” he said. “I think it showed a little bit of what everybody can do.”
Playing in unremittingly miserable weather, Flacco completed 25 of 34 passes for 236 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions. His completion percentage would have been even better if not for a few drops of the rain-slicked football.
The Ravens dominated so thoroughly that he took most of the second half off, something we’ve rarely seen in Flacco’s 11 seasons.
The rest of the football world will remain skeptical until Flacco piles quality games on top of one another. That’s fair given his last three seasons of sub-par, injury-marred production.
It’s also important to remember that he got away with holding the ball and attempting some risky throws because the Buffalo defense made little headway against the Baltimore offensive line. That won’t always be the case against superior pass rushes.
But we’ve seen the Ravens passing offense look better for four months now, ever since offseason workouts began. It’s enough to say the improvement might be real.
The Ravens’ new wide receivers showed off the qualities that made them exciting acquisitions.
General manager Ozzie Newsome overhauled the receiving corps more aggressively than any other facet of the team in the offseason. He had little choice after a season of negligible production.
Newsome replaced Mike Wallace, Jeremy Maclin and Danny Woodhead (technically a running back but signed to be a possession receiver) with Michael Crabtree, John Brown and Willie Snead IV. All three came to Baltimore with plenty to prove after difficult seasons in 2017.
Though none of the new receivers produced an overwhelming statistical line against the Bills — Snead led the team with 49 receiving yards — all three delivered moments that illustrated their particular skills.
Snead consistently found space in the middle of the Buffalo defense and caught four passes on six targets.
Brown demonstrated the rapid chemistry he’s developed with Flacco on the first drive when he read the quarterback’s eyes and broke sharply away from coverage to make a 29-yard catch on second down and 25. That play, on which Brown exploited the Bills’ respect for him as a deep threat, saved a drive that established the tone for a dominant victory.
Crabtree got off to a poor start, dropping the first two passes thrown his way in slick conditions. But he’s a first-rate threat in the red zone. Even as his overall production plummeted last season for the Oakland Raiders, he caught eight touchdown passes. He showed why on the Ravens’ last drive of the first half, when he outfought his defender to catch a Flacco lob and deftly tapped his cleats in the corner of the end zone.
“You saw how special he is at holding people off and getting his feet down,” Flacco said.
Snead had a big grin on his face after the game as he described how four months of offseason work translated to the real thing.
“I think it even clicked during mini-camp and OTAs,” he said. “We just put that much time in. We definitely gelled together really well early.”
The Ravens’ defense remains a killer against bad quarterbacks.
Poor Nathan Peterman never had a chance at M&T Bank Stadium. His offensive line couldn’t prevent an assortment of Ravens from eating up the pocket, and his receivers couldn’t get away from a Jimmy Smith-less secondary.
Peterman finished with a remarkable 0.0 passer rating before rookie Josh Allen relieved him, and Allen didn’t do a lot better.
The Bills probably hoped to get star running back LeSean McCoy untracked early so Peterman wouldn’t face third-and-long after third-and-long. But the Ravens smothered McCoy as well, holding him to 22 yards on seven carries.
It was difficult to pick a defensive star of the game for the Ravens, because there were so many. Third-year cornerback Tavon Young made the first two sacks of the game, demonstrating his potency as a playmaker from the slot. Fellow corners Brandon Carr and Marlon Humphrey dominated Buffalo’s receivers one-on-one. Linebackers Za’Darius Smith, Tim Williams and Terrell Suggs all recorded sacks.
It was all-points domination, reminiscent of the games early last season when the Ravens’ defense carried them with interceptions and sacks.
But we should not overreact. The Ravens have a balanced defense with good players at all three levels. When they face an opponent with few dynamic skill players, they swarm. But when they face the Cincinnati Bengals on Thursday, with A.J. Green at receiver and competent veteran Andy Dalton at quarterback, their advantages will be reduced.
Suggs deflected all the post-game praise, cautioning that one dominant performance against the young Bills was hardly an omen.
“You can’t tell anything by the first game,” he said.
The Ravens will use Lamar Jackson enough to force opponents to account for him.
Jackson ended up playing a lot more than anyone expected because the Ravens jumped to a 40-0 lead early in the third quarter.
Of more interest than his work in the second half was the way the Ravens used him early, when the game remained in doubt.
Offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg put the rookie on the field almost immediately and used him five times in the first half, primarily as a decoy. The plays didn’t produce much yardage, but they suggested the possibilities the Ravens see in spreading Jackson wide, then putting him in motion.
At this point in the season, the idea of Jackson is just as potent as the reality of what the Ravens achieved when they used him against the Bills.
They established their willingness to use him, and that means opponents will have to account for a wider range of possibilities than they would if Jackson were plastered to the sideline.
To have such a dynamic athlete active on game days and not use him would be to squander a valuable source of misdirection.
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Safety Eric Weddle said that if he were preparing for the Ravens offense, Jackson would represent a real nuisance.
“He’s only going to make our offense better in the long run,” he said. “If he can get in there and have some explosive plays, he’ll make Joe better and make things easier on offense.”
A healthy Ravens offensive line neutralized one of the best pass defenses of 2017.
Even last season, Buffalo’s pass rush was not its strength.
But the Ravens’ line gave Flacco so much time Sunday that he easily dissected one of the better secondaries in the NFL. After a preseason in which the Ravens often struggled to protect their quarterbacks, this was a reminder that they really do possess excellent front-line talent at guard and tackle.
They had to feel especially reassured watching all-world guard Marshal Yanda return to his impeccable pass protection and mauling run blocks. We often overlooked Yanda’s absence last season as a factor in the team’s offensive inconsistency. You don’t lose a Hall-of-Fame-level lineman without suffering ill effects.
It remains to be seen how Matt Skura holds up as a starting center and how long James Hurst holds off rookie Orlando Brown as the team’s starting right tackle. But a healthy Yanda on one side and a healthy Ronnie Stanley protecting the edge on the other form the base of an above-average offensive line.