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Five things we learned from the Ravens’ 20-3 preseason win over the Panthers

From a bare-bones offensive performance to the stellar play of safeties DeShon Elliott and Chuck Clark, here are five things we learned from the Ravens’ 20-3 preseason win over the Carolina Panthers on Saturday night:

We’re learning even less about the Ravens offense than we would in a typical preseason.

It’s a given that the preseason will be a time of managed workloads and offensive designs about as imaginative as a cardboard box.

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Even on such a relative scale, it’s remarkable how little we’re glimpsing of the Ravens offense that will take the field in Las Vegas in three weeks.

Coach John Harbaugh made the right decision keeping Lamar Jackson on the sideline for a second straight Saturday night. Why on earth would he risk his franchise player behind an offensive that’s still coming together? With Sammy Watkins, Marquise Brown, Rashod Bateman, Mark Andrews and Miles Boykin all out of action, it’s not like Jackson would have had a chance to build game chemistry with his top targets. So there really was no point.

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The Ravens made use of this setup by giving No. 2 quarterback Tyler Huntley a full game to make mistakes and work through them. To his credit, Huntley did that after he started the evening with four straight incompletions and a tipped interception. His best work came in the second half against Carolina’s backups, so this was not an out-and-out triumph. But all the evidence we’ve seen so far suggests that Huntley does not rattle easily.

Aside from Huntley’s performance and some unexpected roster pushes from running backs Ty’Son Williams (Harbaugh described his churning 20-yard touchdown as a “great football run”) and Nate McCrary, we really don’t know anything about this offense that we didn’t know a month ago.

There’s a chance this could change next weekend in Washington, where the Ravens might have all of their starting offensive linemen on the field and where we might get our lone preseason taste of Jackson. Even if that happens, it’s best to go in with modest expectations. Whatever the Ravens are going to be on offense in 2021, we won’t see the real thing until Week 1 against the Raiders.

The Ravens’ starting safeties are determined to be more than pretty good in 2021.

Given the chaos created by the sudden release of Earl Thomas III last summer, the Ravens did well to get 16 games of solid play from each of their starting safeties, Chuck Clark and DeShon Elliott.

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As we heard all offseason, however, Clark and Elliott combined for just one interception and four forced fumbles over those many, many snaps. Clark’s all-around dependability and Elliott’s fierce run support were nice, but fans raised on Ed Reed wanted more sizzle.

Elliott and Clark provided just that in short stints against the Panthers. Elliott made the play of the game early when he shed a block and stonewalled Panthers running back Chuba Hubbard at the 1-yard line. He added a sack among his four tackles. Clark, meanwhile, knocked the ball free from Hubbard with a sharp hit. The Ravens didn’t recover the fumble, but that wasn’t Clark’s fault.

Did these plays foreshadow a leap forward from the safety pair? They sound confident. “We want to be the best duo in the league,” Clark said.

Harbaugh praised their purposeful game speed. “They’ve really taken it to another level,” he said. “They flow within the construction of the defense.”

We saw the Ravens play good enough defense to make a deep playoff run last season. If Clark and Elliott really are better, along with inside linebackers Patrick Queen and Malik Harrison, the follow-up could be memorable.

The Ravens’ offensive line avoided a repeat disaster, but we’re far from the final picture.

With Kevin Zeitler back in action at right guard, we moved one step closer to seeing the Ravens’ starting offensive line. They still played without left tackle Ronnie Stanley, rookie left guard Ben Cleveland and guard/tackle Tyre Phillips, who suffered a minor ankle injury in practice last week. So it remains difficult to give a meaningful grade on the progress of this unit.

The Ravens did not play well early in the game when the Panthers’ best pass rushers were on the field and defensive coordinator Phil Snow called a series of blitzes to harass Huntley. They averaged just 3 yards per carry and did not reach the end zone in the first half. On the other hand, we did not see Panthers defenders racing into the backfield on every play as the New Orleans Saints seemed to the previous week.

With backup linemen protecting Huntley, the Ravens wore down Carolina and controlled the second half, stringing together three sustained scoring drives. Williams and McCrary found room to run inside, and Huntley had time to look for outside throws. Call this progress, even if it was measured.

We still don’t know when we’ll see the Ravens’ real offensive line working as a unit under game conditions. We still don’t know how it will compare to the group that faltered in the playoffs seven months ago. Offensive coordinator Greg Roman has made it clear he’s as eager as anyone to get the process underway. This is not an area where the Ravens want to shuffle players in and out or go into Week 1 with major questions. Chemistry is a real issue.

Tylan Wallace and James Proche have not taken full advantage of the opportunities provided by injuries.

With so many of the team’s top pass catchers sidelined, Wallace and Proche entered the Carolina game with a rare spotlight on them. Could either young wide receiver answer with a breakout game?

Proche has been the surprise star of this summer, a trend that continued last week in joint practices between the Ravens and Panthers. He’s a charismatic guy who tries to squeeze the most out of every moment on the field, even when he’s not directly involved in a drill. His hands might be the best on the team. That said, he caught one pass on three targets last season, and he’s caught just three passes on four targets for 14 yards this preseason.

So why the disconnect between Proche’s productivity in practices and games? Much of it is outside his control, a matter of game planning. But at some point, if he doesn’t have a breakout moment, he’s going to stay buried behind the bigger names ahead of him on the depth chart.

Wallace, by contrast, struggled to make an impression in training camp after many draft analysts touted him as a fourth-round steal for the Ravens. He went without a catch in the preseason opener. His second outing proved to be more of a mixed bag. Wallace caught a pair of passes from Huntley on the Ravens’ go-ahead touchdown drive, turning one play upfield for a 25-yard gain. Then he took a step back in the fourth quarter when he couldn’t hold onto a touchdown catch off a sweet rollout throw from Huntley. Not the impression he wanted to leave as he tries to carve out a role in a crowded position group.

L.J. Fort’s knee injury could leave the Ravens perilously thin at inside linebacker.

Harbaugh said the early prognosis on Fort wasn’t good after the veteran linebacker got his leg stuck in the turf against Carolina. An MRI on Sunday will provide more information, but Fort could be dealing with a serious knee injury.

That would sting the Ravens at a position where they’re excited about the progress of Queen and Harrison but short on dependable reserves. Chris Board gave them effective snaps on defense last season and remains an essential special teams player. Kristian Welch is also effective on special teams, while Otaro Alaka has been limited by his own knee injury.

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None of these players brings as much to the table as Fort, who was terrific against the run and solid in coverage last season. He’s the kind of glue piece who never garners much attention but helps a contender get through rough patches. His injury was easily the worst news for the Ravens on a night that went well overall.

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Preseason, Week 3

RAVENS@WASHINGTON

Saturday, 6 p.m.

TV: Chs. 11, 7

Radio: 97.9 FM, 1090 AM

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