Joe Flacco’s first drive of the preseason could not have gone much better.
All spring and summer, we’ve watched a healthy Flacco move without inhibition and flick beautiful spirals to his new receivers.
But after three subpar seasons for the Ravens’ franchise quarterback, would any of it transfer to an actual game?
A full-on test this wasn’t, not with the Los Angeles Rams playing reserves instead of their many defensive superstars. But Flacco looked just as good leading the Ravens to an opening score as he has in practice.
He completed 5 of 7 passes for 71 yards and even ran for 3 yards on the scoring drive. The offensive line, missing only starting right guard Marshal Yanda, gave him ample time to throw. And he appeared confident looking downfield for new targets such as wide receiver Michael Crabtree and rookie tight end Hayden Hurst.
The Ravens’ playoff hopes for 2018 are inextricably linked with Flacco’s hopes for reversing his career trajectory in his 11th season.
His optimism is obvious in both interviews and in the grins he’s flashing on the sideline.
“Listen, our guys are really showing up,” he said. “We’ve had a great camp, and it was good to come out here and see it carry over into a game.”
Lamar Jackson took a desired step forward in his second game but still has a long way to go as an NFL passer.
Jackson started with a highlight for his burgeoning reel when he juked two Rams out of their cleats on his way to a 9-yard touchdown run. From the moment he hit the field during spring workouts, Jackson embarrassed defenders with sudden, fluid cuts that simply cannot be taught.
Those same moves earned him comparisons to Michael Vick and the greatest running quarterbacks in history when he was at Louisville. He runs without fear of contact, which makes him a wonder to behold but also inspires concerns given the speed and violence of front-line NFL defenders.
Offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg said he expected Jackson to take a step forward from his debut, and the rookie did, leading the Ravens to 16 points after he relieved Flacco on the second drive of the game.
He benefited from playing behind the starting offensive line for one series, and generally avoided glaring mistakes.
That said, he still missed a few wide-open targets, and he has a tendency to flick the ball sidearm when he’s under pressure, which reduces his accuracy (he completed 7 of 18 passes against the Rams) and exposes him to batted balls. He takes ill-timed sacks because he’s too eager to extend plays.
All in all, the Jackson experiment is on track after two games. But there’s no reason to talk about him taking playing time from Flacco.
Orlando Brown Jr. stood out in an improved performance by the offensive line.
The Ravens struggled with pass blocking more than any other phase of the game in their preseason opener against the Chicago Bears, allowing eight sacks.
Brown’s play was a bright spot in that disappointing performance, and he started again against the Rams, joined by veterans James Hurst, Matt Skura, Alex Lewis and Ronnie Stanley.
Together, this unit, sans Yanda, played well in protecting Flacco and Jackson.
Brown turned in another iron-man effort, staying in the game long past the other starting linemen and generally holding his own.
If his progress continues throughout the preseason, he could win the starting job at right tackle and provide a significant boost to the team’s offensive line depth by pushing Hurst or Skura to a swing role, probably the ideal use for either.
“You can’t ignore the fact he has ability,” Flacco said. “He’s so big, he just swallows people up.”
As a second-generation Raven, Brown is already a fan favorite beyond the level you’d expect for a rookie right tackle.
His development could be one of the most important stories of the preseason.
After an unproductive rookie season, Tim Williams has reasserted himself as a pass-rush prospect.
In the third quarter, Williams came screaming from the outside to maul Rams quarterback Brandon Allen and force a fumble that set up a Ravens field goal.
It was the highlight play of another outstanding performance from the second-year linebacker, who has revived hopes that he could be a significant young pass rusher for a team that needs one.
Last year, Williams excited the Ravens early in training camp with his speed off the edge. But he became a nonfactor once the real games began, finishing with six tackles in eight games and no sacks.
It’s too early to say he’s turned the corner, given that he’s played against second- and third-string blockers. But Williams has been a consistent pass-rushing force in both preseason games and reminded coaches why they were so intrigued with him coming out of Alabama.
“I think he’s practiced that way, too,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. “Not just the pass rush, though the pass rush everybody obviously saw tonight, and that’s what he’s been doing in practice. But to see the run defense, he’s playing the run very well also.”
The Ravens need a rush specialist to supplement Terrell Suggs in passing situations, and there’s not an obvious better candidate on the roster than Williams, a third-round draft pick in 2017.
Breshad Perriman showed badly needed signs of life.
It felt sadly telling when Perriman, the 2015 first-round pick, remained on the sideline for the entire first half as the Ravens auditioned a parade of rookie receivers, from Jordan Lasley to Jaleel Scott to Janarion Grant.
None of them produced much, however, and once Perriman entered the game in the second half, he did.
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His 32-yard touchdown catch against tight coverage in the fourth quarter put a happy cap on a three-catch, 71-yard effort.
Harbaugh called the throw and catch between Robert Griffin III and Perriman “as good as you’re ever going to see.”
After three increasingly disheartening seasons, Perriman faces an uphill climb to convince Ravens coaches he can excel in the NFL. We’ve all watched him struggle to catch simple passes, separate from defenders or complete plays in traffic. Injuries have undermined him as well.
He’s never looked as comfortable on the field as his size and speed suggest he should. But he gave Harbaugh reason to pay attention Thursday, and that’s at least a small step for a guy who badly wants to do well.
“Of course I know that,” he said of the fact he’s fighting for a job. “I know that’s what it is, but at the same time, I just worry about me and myself. I control that, for the most part, and I know if I just focus on me and my game and play how I know [I can] with all of my God-given ability, I won’t have really any worries.”
Teammates and coaches have always rooted for Perriman.
“He’s taken a lot of heat,” Harbaugh said. “He’s a young guy, and he’s a good person — he works hard. He been under siege with it. He understands that more than anybody. But I think he deserves a lot of credit for the way he’s handled it.”