The Ravens entered Monday night’s game against the Indianapolis Colts with their team healthy and their coach happy. They had been committed to getting better with every practice, John Harbaugh said Saturday, even if it was just 1 percent at a time. It didn’t hurt that their availability was close to 100 percent.
But football, as a rule, rarely abides good health. It’s even less tolerant of bad execution.
As the Ravens left their third preseason game with a 20-19 win, their 11th straight preseason victory, they could only hope that the mistakes and misfortune of a less-than-ideal opening 30 minutes would not linger long. In the dress rehearsal for the dress rehearsal — the team’s penultimate preseason game Saturday, against the Miami Dolphins, will offer the most complete picture yet of the team’s regular-season foundation — there were more than a few missed cues.
“I thought our guys came out with a lot of energy and I’m really happy to see that, proud of the guys for that,” Harbaugh said. “Really happy we found a way to win the game. Did some good things. Did some not-so-good things, obviously. But that’s all good.”
In the Ravens’ second preseason game, a 33-7 walloping of the visiting Los Angeles Rams on Aug. 9, they led 17-0 at the end of the first quarter. On Monday night, they entered the second quarter down 3-0 and with a whopping 40 yards of total offense. (The Colts had just 55 themselves.)
It took quarterback Joe Flacco until the offense’s third drive to put points on the board, but the six-play, 67-yard possession was further evidence of a possibly rejuvenated offense. Starting at the Ravens' 33-yard line, Flacco followed a short run by Buck Allen with a 29-yard throw to wide receiver Michael Crabtree down the left sideline. Indianapolis compounded a 7-yard gain by Allen with a 15-yard penalty for initiating contact with the helmet.
Three plays later, Flacco (7-for-9 for 72 yards) connected with wide receiver John Brown for the team’s first score. A free-agent acquisition like Crabtree, Brown corralled the ball in the back of the end zone with his left hand before two-handing it and dragging his back foot just inside the boundary.
“With John’s speed, I just trusted that he would get around the guy at the last minute, which he did,” Flacco said. “And just a great job by him getting his eyes on the ball and making the catch.”
But after the extra point, left tackle Ronnie Stanley, an emerging star of an offensive line with a two-deep of questionable quality, walked gingerly off the field on his own power. He headed to the locker room for further evaluation with what Harbaugh called a knee strain.
The touchdown drive was a palate cleanser after an ugly first quarter. The game’s opening drive ended after three plays, Allen fumbling a handoff from Flacco on third-and-1 as the team hurried to the line. The Ravens’ next possession fizzled out near midfield.
“Yeah, I thought we would be able to move the ball if we just didn’t hurt ourselves,” Flacco said.
The Ravens defense helped out in short order. Colts quarterback Andrew Luck’s first preseason possession at Lucas Oil Stadium ended after three plays, too, with cornerback Tavon Young’s breakup of a pass attempt. With what happened next, Young might have been doing Indianapolis a favor.
As the Ravens’ Tim White, a wide receiver whose roster status could hinge on his special teams production, was wrapped up and thrown to the ground on a punt return, the ball wriggled loose from his grasp. Indianapolis recovered easily in the red zone, and only a clumsy throw by Luck that safety Anthony Levine Sr. tipped to himself for a nice interception kept the game scoreless.
“We aren’t flinching. We believe in our coordinator [Don “Wink” Martindale], we believe in this package, and most importantly, we believe in the players on the field,” said outside linebacker Terrell Suggs, who had a sack. “There’s no flinch. We don’t worry about it.”
Suggs and the defense were largely blameless Monday, continuing a strong preseason. Indianapolis opened the scoring late in the first quarter on a 57-yard field goal by the ageless Adam Vinatieri.
Its second touchdown came with the help of a short field after Ravens kicker Justin Tucker missed a 59-yard field-goal attempt. Even that drive required a lucky bounce. Ravens defensive tackle Michael Pierce pried the ball loose from Colts running back Jordan Wilkins just short of the goal line, but the ball fell neatly to wide receiver Chester Rogers in the end zone. He needed only to bend down for a touchdown that gave the Colts a 10-7 lead.
Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson had four second-quarter drives, all of them largely unimpressive. A 38-yard field goal from Tucker tied the game just before halftime, but it did little to mask his poor start — Jackson missed his first four throws and nearly fumbled on an ill-advised scramble — or his halftime numbers (3-for-10 for 31 yards).
His night ended after the third quarter, and his showing did little to settle the question of whether the Ravens should keep Robert Griffin III on the roster as a third quarterback. Jackson finished 7-for-15 for 49 yards and a touchdown in nearly two quarters’ work, the score a nice 7-yard throw to wide receiver Chris Moore just inside the right boundary of the end zone.
They were unimpressive numbers — he added 26 yards on the ground as the Ravens flashed some read-option plays — but still they were a statistical improvement. In his preseason debut, Jackson had a 40 percent completion rate. In his second, 38.9 percent. Monday’s game raised his accuracy to just under 42 percent.
“Incompletions. Lot of incompletions,” Jackson said of his night. “I came out cold. I've got to learn that sitting down when the vets [are] up. I’ve got to stay warm through the process. I didn't do a good job tonight.”
Other players lived up to Harbaugh’s maxim of self-improvement. Running back Gus Edwards ran for 43 yards on 15 carries, both team highs. Tailback Kenneth Dixon, making his preseason debut, added 32 yards on six carries, and had three catches on four targets for 24 yards.
Defensively, outside linebacker Tim Williams, something of a forgotten man on the Ravens defense, had a sack for his second straight game. Rookie cornerback Anthony Averett starred in a goal-line stand that led to a Colts turnover on downs, cornerback Stanley Jean-Baptiste had a late interception, and the Ravens stuffed third-string Colts quarterback Phillip Walker on a 2-point conversion that would’ve pushed Indianapolis ahead, 21-20.
Other Ravens, especially those in their passing attack, were due for a tongue-lashing in film review. Rookie wide receivers Jaleel Scott dropped a catchable ball. So did fellow rookie Jordan Lasley; his mistake cost him a sure-thing touchdown. Kaare Vedvik had a punt blocked. There was no breakthrough performance among the backup tight ends.
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With the Ravens ramping up repetitions for their starters, the wait for more second- and third-string action will be long and anxious. The team’s final preseason game is Aug. 30. Final cuts are made two days later. The Ravens have decisions to make, areas to improve and players to preserve.