MIAMI GARDENS, FLA. —
In a pregame radio interview, Ravens coach John Harbaugh enumerated all that was on the line in Saturday night’s preseason game against the Miami Dolphins. Final cuts were due in a week, and there were still so many decisions to make, from the team’s first-stringers to its last man standing.
Who would start at inside linebacker? Who would claim the final spot (or spots, he clarified) on the wide receiver depth chart? And what about returner?
“There's a lot at stake tonight,” he said.
But not the health of the team’s most important player. Joe Flacco did not play in Saturday’s 27-10 win at Hard Rock Stadium, and he was not alone. In a game that’s typically the high-water mark for first-string repetitions, the quarterback hung out on the sideline with a handful of other starters, Harbaugh having decided the Ravens had already seen what they needed this preseason.
“We were here a week early,” Harbaugh said. “We had the two joint practices. We had four great practices where our starters got lots of reps. And we've already played, going into this game, three preseason games. Even though those guys didn't play in the first game, they played significantly in the last two. We just felt like we had the work we needed.”
The resulting mishmash of first- and second-stringers made for an untidy first half, one that would require a long night’s study to gauge certain Ravens’ readiness for the regular season — or chances of even getting that far.
Harbaugh said Thursday that the Ravens offensive line, whoever started there, would be able to protect Flacco should he play. But it did not take long for the coaching staff’s decision to sit Flacco to look prudent. With guard Alex Lewis and right tackle Orlando Brown Jr. the only projected starters on the first-string line, quarterback Robert Griffin III was on the run more than desired. The Dolphins entered halftime with two sacks and three quarterback hits.
With wide receivers Michael Crabtree, Willie Snead IV and John Brown getting the night off, and running back Alex Collins seeing minimal action, the Ravens were desperate for a spark. Or a possession longer than a commercial break.
Until a field goal late in the first half, they had only one drive with over six plays — their first, which ended with a 51-yard field-goal miss from Justin Tucker. The legendarily accurate kicker had a 51-yard field-goal attempt blocked late in the first quarter, his third miss in as many tries from beyond 50 yards.
But Tucker’s quality is a given. On offense, the Ravens got little clarity on who’s worthy of a roster spot at their skill positions. Harbaugh had expressed some frustration after Monday night’s game against the Indianapolis Colts that none of the team’s second- and third-string wide receivers and tight ends had separated themselves, had given the Ravens a reason to keep them around past August.
Quarterback Robert Griffin III, whose production this preseason had earned him a vote of support Thursday from Harbaugh, was careful through the air (9-for-16 for 66 yards and no touchdowns or interceptions) and productive on the ground (five carries for 41 yards).
But it was telling that he was the Ravens’ leading rusher at halftime, and that running back Kenneth Dixon was their leading receiver then, too (three receptions for 18 yards, most of them on a slippery 16-yard catch-and-run). Maxx Williams, starting at tight end, didn’t have a first-down catch. He did have a false-start penalty near the goal line and a dropped pass.
Rookie wide receiver Jordan Lasley had three catches for 30 yards. Breshad Perriman made two receptions for 13 yards. Undrafted rookie Janarion Grant started as a returner and didn’t fumble — or break a long one. For them and others in their on-the-bubble predicament, a roster spot could hinge on this next week of practice and Thursday’s preseason finale against the Washington Redskins.
“There's no pressure,” Griffin said. “I should say there is no pressure that I'm going to apply to myself to go out and perform like I have been and I know how, and the coaches have taught me within the system. … It's just go out, play ball and have fun, and continue to do what we've been doing, and let the coaches make the decisions at the end of the day.”
After halftime, the Ravens looked more like the world-beaters they have been for several preseasons now. Leading the charge for their 12th straight win was a still-solid Ravens defense — the unit allowed just 131 yards in the first half against first-stringer Ryan Tannehill and 221 overall while forcing two turnovers — and a pair of rookies.
The first one, fans might not know. Undrafted rookie running back De'Lance Turner entered Monday night's game with seven carries for 31 yards. He more than doubled that with the Ravens' best running play of the preseason, a 65-yard, seemingly untouched sprint up the middle and into the end zone.
That score tied the game at 10. The other rookie, quarterback Lamar Jackson, soon put the Ravens ahead with the feet already known to be elite. He capped a workmanlike third-quarter drive with a read-option keeper that bamboozled Miami and had him stretching across the goal line for a 19-yard touchdown.
Jackson, the No. 32 overall pick, said he hadn’t come into Monday’s game sufficiently warmed up. Whatever he did before Saturday’s game, it worked, and to a lasting effect. He extended the Ravens’ lead to 24-10 with a 21-yard throw to wide receiver DeVier Posey, who was streaking across the middle of the field nearly uncovered.
Before making way for fourth-stringer Josh Woodrum, Jackson had three carries for 39 yards.and was 7-for-10 for 98 yards, a marked improvement on his 41.9 percent completion rate over his first three games.
“I feel like it's getting better. I'm working my way up right now,” he said. “Fourth preseason game, I felt like I did pretty good. But there’s still room for improvement.”
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But then, Jackson doesn’t have to worry about his roster status. His teammates are not so lucky.