From variety in the backfield to a new dependence on Cyrus Jones’ defensive skills, here are five things we learned from the Ravens’ 26-13 preseason win over the Green Bay Packers.
Lamar Jackson says he’s way ahead of where he was last year, and he’s right.
We’re beating a tired drum, but there’s no more important story for the franchise than Jackson’s progress, which is real despite the no-frills offense we’ve seen the past two weeks.
Jackson says there’s no comparison between his level of play now and where he was at this time last year. He’s correct.
We’ve seen him transfer his smoother, more consistent passing from training camp practices to games. He completed six of 10 passes for 58 yards against the Packers, and his numbers would have been better had Willie Snead IV pulled in a perfectly placed throw over the middle on the Ravens’ second drive.
Jackson has kept his attempts fairly simple, and he hasn’t faced high-end NFL pressure. But recall the 2018 preseason, when every one of his passes felt like an adventure. That guy, who struggled to maintain a consistent release point or throw a spiral, is gone.
We always knew Jackson was a scintillating runner, but after he played conservatively in the Ravens’ preseason opener, he also unleashed that part of his game against the Packers. The stat line said he carried twice for 14 yards but didn’t account for a touchdown run on which he accelerated away from four-man pressure only to see the result wiped out by a Snead penalty.
The play offered a hint of the multifaceted threat who will confound defenses come September. If Jackson’s passing keeps opponents more honest, his runs will be that much more deadly.
He spoke with Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers (who did not play) after the game. With a sly grin, he recounted how Rodgers urged him to get down before absorbing hits. But in truth, there’s no way to turn off Jackson’s improvisational instincts, and the Ravens wouldn’t want to if they could.
With Mark Ingram and Justice Hill, variety will be the spice of the Ravens’ backfield .
The Ravens were a power running team down the stretch last season, with Gus Edwards and Kenneth Dixon acting as twin battering rams.
But they’re equipped to throw more changeups this year with Ingram’s between-tackles ingenuity and Hill’s quick-twitch cuts added to the mix.
We got our first in-game glimpse of Ingram against the Packers, and though he played just one series, he made an impression with four carries for 18 yards. “He is a beast,” Jackson said. “You’ve seen it. Two touches, he was just bursting, hopping around, moving forward.”
That said, it’s Hill, the rookie from Oklahoma State, who could add a different dimension to the Ravens’ running game. They haven’t had a breakaway threat from the backfield since a young Ray Rice. It’s early, but Hill has at least flashed that potential with several exciting runs in training camp and a magnificent juke against the Packers.
Ravens coach John Harbaugh also saw significant progress in the team’s run blocking Thursday night, even though the offensive line played without its leader, right guard Marshal Yanda.
Chris Board’s concussion could destabilize the picture at inside linebacker.
This was not a deep position for the Ravens even before their projected starter at weak-side linebacker left the game because of a violent collision in the second quarter.
Board has been one of the best stories of the summer, evolving from an unsung special teams stalwart to a featured player based on his speed and aggression.
The Ravens have an immediate replacement in 2018 fourth-round draft pick Kenny Young, who was competing with Board for playing time and has made several highlight-reel hits in the preseason. But they don’t have any sure things behind those two and starting middle linebacker Patrick Onwuasor. Anthony Levine Sr. is the player they would turn to next, at least in clear passing situations. And they might keep Otaro Alaka on their 53-man roster if Board’s concussion is more serious than Harbaugh indicated after the game.
The Ravens have to hope Board recovers quickly, both for his sake and theirs. He seems unlikely to return next week in Philadelphia, and even if he’s ready for the preseason finale, the Ravens would probably not risk another injury to a key defender.
The concussion comes at an unfortunate time for a player who worked his way up through exemplary commitment to special teams. Board is a stoic figure who has never let others define him with their modest expectations. He deserves better.
The Ravens need Cyrus Jones to be more than just a punt returner.
The thought going into training camp was that Jones (Gilman) could only secure a roster spot by outdueling Tyler Ervin for the punt-returner job. And there was no guarantee the Ravens would carry a pure returner.
But Jones has altered that tenuous outlook with his aggressive play in the secondary, taking on a more prominent defensive role with nickel cornerback Tavon Young sidelined by a neck injury that will likely cost him the entire season.
The injury to Young will immediately test the Ravens’ vaunted secondary depth. He was a key playmaker for them last season and earned a three-year, $25.8 million contract extension that made him the highest-paid nickel cornerback in the league.
Jones lost his man in coverage several times Thursday, but also made a string of plays, finishing second on the team with five tackles. In the second quarter, he hit Green Bay quarterback Tim Boyle to force a dump-off pass that cost the Packers a yard.
“He’s looked good,” Harbaugh said. “That’s the thing that makes us feel good about it. We are blessed at that position with some depth.”
Jones was regarded as a potential front-line nickel corner when the New England Patriots drafted him in the second round out of Alabama in 2016. So it’s not as if his defensive performance has come from nowhere.
Ervin, meanwhile, has continued to impress as a punt and kickoff returner and could add depth to the Ravens’ backfield if they decide to not keep Dixon. It no longer seems inconceivable that both he and Jones could make the final 53.
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“I don’t know how it’s going to shake out right now,” Harbaugh said.
Trace McSorley is making a compelling case to be kept on the 53-man roster.
The Ravens offense hardly slowed down after McSorely replaced Jackson in the second quarter, tearing off a nine-play, 64-yard touchdown drive capped by a well-timed connection between the rookie quarterback and wide receiver Chris Moore.
McSorley wasn’t perfect. He misfired on a throw to Miles Boykin in the two-minute drill, leading to a tipped-ball interception.
But he has made impressive strides since the first time we saw him in offseason workouts, when he strained to make standard NFL throws.
The Ravens will never be thrilled to carry three quarterbacks, but they did it last year, and there’s a lot to be said for fortifying the position behind Jackson, who will always risk injury with his frequent runs. Robert Griffin III’s fractured thumb has made McSorley that much more of an insurance policy.
McSorley is mobile enough to execute the offense the Ravens have built around their starter, and he could help on special teams, though it’s not clear how (initial comparisons to the New Orleans Saints’ kick-returning quarterback, Taysom Hill, were off-base).