A pair of quick three-and-outs meant the Ravens starting defense watched the final three quarters of Thursday's last-second 30-27 win over the New Orleans Saints as satisfied but interested spectators when their backups took over.
They watched the reserves concede five scoring drives in seven tries, not counting the Saints' Hail Mary attempt at the final whistle, and saw a unit that lacked experience struggle to meet the Ravens' lofty standard.
For the starters, it was a necessary growing experience they say will help their understudies when their time inevitably comes. The reserves, while allowing that their performance was a massive drop-off from that of the starters, left M&T Bank Stadium Thursday knowing improvement would grow from the preseason opener.
"It's a good thing to see those stats and things like that, but we want to see the young guys and uphold those same standards as the first team," said outside linebacker Courtney Upshaw, who started but remained in the game with the first wave of reserves. "I was even in there on the screen [to Brandin Cooks] for a touchdown pass, and you never want to allow that, or have your partners in crime allow that either. We've got a standard here."
Upshaw was one of a handful of recognizable names on the field as the Saints began to find success in the second quarter. Starting cornerbacks Jimmy Smith and Lardarius Webb, defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan (foot), and defensive end Chris Canty didn't play at all Thursday. Veteran outside linebackers Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil were out of the game, as were up-the-middle stalwarts Brandon Williams and Daryl Smith.
But for a defense that was bogged down by injuries for all of 2014, more attention than usual was paid to the proverbial next man up. Veteran Kyle Arrington, who started at cornerback but switched to safety with the reserves, didn't shy away from the fact they had work to do.
"Obviously, we didn't come out and play as we were capable of, how we know we're capable of," he said. "We've got to go back, look at the film and correct their mistakes. But guys, they gave effort. That's all you can ask for in the first preseason game. There's going to be some mistakes here and there. It's all about how you respond, though."
The Ravens' defensive core of starters is as impressive as any in the league, so the performance of the backups only truly matters when injuries hit. If the preseason is any indication, they already have.
Jernigan has been out nearly a week with a foot issue, while reserve defensive end DeAngelo Tyson has been out since last weekend with a strained elbow. Safety Matt Elam and defensive end Brent Urban each suffered potentially season-ending biceps tears early in camp. With the top two cornerbacks, plus three defensive linemen missing Thursday, the Ravens' depth is already being tested.
On the defensive front, reserve defensive end Lawrence Guy and rookie defensive tackle Carl Davis filled in well, and played deep into the fourth quarter. The defensive front, which also featured Kapron Lewis-Moore and Christo Bilukidi, plus utilized outside linebacker Za'Darius Smith with his hand on the ground, played well enough to think that position will continue to be one of the Ravens' deepest.
But without former NFL MVP Drew Brees taking a snap, the Saints' three quarterbacks combined to go 25-for-39 for 266 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions a Ravens secondary missing Smith and Webb but featuring familiar faces (cornerbacks Asa Jackson and Rashaan Melvin, plus safety Anthony Levine) and new ones (Arrington, plus cornerbacks Quinton Pointer, Cassius Vaughn and fourth-round pick Tray Walker).
On the first drive after the defensive starters gave way to the second team, Saints journeyman quarterback Luke McCown led the Saints on a 10-play, 77-yard touchdown drive capped by a screen pass where Cooks was barely touched.
The Saints got the ball back after a Ravens field goal with 2:17 to go in the first half, inserted third-string quarterback Ryan Griffin, and ripped off a six-play, 90-yard touchdown drive to enter halftime down 20-14.
The reserves picked it up in the second half, limiting the Saints to three long field-goal attempts — two converted — and preventing the big plays that hurt them in the second quarter.
Particularly after Matt Schaub's interception gave the Saints the ball at midfield in the third quarter, the likes of Davis, inside linebacker Zachary Orr and undrafted outside linebacker Brennen Beyer were much quicker to the ball.
"I think they started to get comfortable," Levine said. "They got used to the speed of the game. They adapted, but then they started making plays. That's when things started going and it started looking good up there."
Williams observed the same thing, especially from Davis, who finished with three tackles, including a tackle for loss, a quarterback hit and a pass deflection.
"Each series, they got they got more comfortable," Williams said. "They'll look better on film. Every series, they got better and better because they've been out there, they're seeing the speed of the game. They're actually getting that work in now so when the season comes, it's like second nature."
The promise of future improvements growing from the preseason opener, for many, was enough to at least temporarily cast aside some of the team's overall issues.
"It's the first preseason game," Melvin said. "We have to go out there and do the best we can. There's going to be some mistakes. You're going to get some letdowns, but what we try to do is pick it up and improve every day, improve in practice and continue to learn so we can contribute to our team when the time comes."