For more than two months, Ravens players and coaches have gushed about the pep in Joe Flacco’s step, the zip on his throws and the affinity he feels for his three new starting wide receivers.
While the outside world has focused on rookie Lamar Jackson and his potential to lead a reimagined Ravens offense, talk inside the team’s training complex at Owings Mills has centered on the quarterback who’s been around for a decade.
For all the optimism over Flacco’s healthy form, we’ve yet to see it tested in a game. Of course, that won’t truly happen until the season opener against the Buffalo Bills. But we will likely get our first glimpse of the 2018 Ravens offense Thursday night at M&T Bank Stadium against the Los Angeles Rams.
Neither Flacco nor any of the starting receivers donned pads for last week’s Hall of Fame Game against the Chicago Bears. Given that the Rams game would be the opener in a normal preseason, we likely won’t see them play many snaps Thursday either.
But Flacco said he does expect to take the field with the starting offense. Considering he missed the entire 2017 preseason because of a back injury, that alone would represent a step forward.
“I’m so excited, I’m out of my mind,” offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg said when asked if he’s looking forward to testing his group in a game. “I can’t even see straight sometimes waiting for this thing.”
Flacco didn’t go that far, but he has not hesitated to express optimism about the offense or the Ravens’ prospects for the season.
Asked what he anticipates Thursday, he said: “Good things, man. Listen, I think we’ve had a really good camp so far. I’m really confident in our group of guys and how we’re going to go out there and perform. I think guys are … I think we have a bunch of gamers and we’re ready to go.”
Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome and coach John Harbaugh knew fixing the team’s uninspired passing game was a priority coming off the team’s disappointing 9-7 finish last season.
Flacco played better as his body healed in the second half of 2017, but he lacked dynamic targets, and his production did not match his franchise-centerpiece contract.
The Ravens ranked 29th in the NFL in passing yards per game and dead last in yards per attempt.
Newsome executed his promised teardown of the receiving corps, replacing Jeremy Maclin, Mike Wallace and Danny Woodhead with Michael Crabtree, John Brown and Willie Snead IV. He snagged athletic tight end Hayden Hurst with the 25th pick in the draft and then gave Flacco extra incentive by trading back into the first round to select the veteran quarterback’s potential replacement in Jackson.
All those moves created welcome intrigue around an offense that has bored fans and failed to take the Ravens to the playoffs each of the past three seasons.
The team’s new receivers have something in common with Flacco. They’re all trying to jump start their careers after disappointing performances in 2017.
But the potential has been obvious since offseason workouts began, with Flacco using his world-class arm to find Snead in the middle, Brown deep and Crabtree all over the field.
Much of that work came against minimal defense, so the next question is how it will hold up in a more competitive setting.
Flacco and his targets won’t be the only objects of fascination Thursday night. Jackson is likely to see extensive playing time again after his uneven debut against the Bears.
“I want him to take the next step,” Mornhinweg said.
Mornhinweg noted the Bears game offered Jackson valuable experience in late-game scenarios. He did not specify what he’ll look for from the rookie against the Rams, but he cautioned that Jackson has many steps to go before he’s a polished NFL quarterback.
For his part, Jackson is still kicking himself for the interception he threw in the opener, when he waited too long to pull the trigger on a deep out to fellow rookie Jaleel Scott. He said his chief goal against the Rams will be to eliminate such hesitation.
“In the league, you can’t do that,” Jackson said. “It’s a lot faster; it’s not college.”
The Ravens also hope for a better performance from their offensive line, which allowed eight combined sacks in the Hall of Fame Game. The constant pressure made life difficult for both Jackson and Robert Griffin III, who started against the Bears.
Starting right guard Marshal Yanda just returned to practice Monday, so he won’t play against the Rams. But it will be interesting to see how the Ravens experiment with the rest of the line. Will rookie Orlando Brown, who played extensively and well against the Bears, continue to start at right tackle? If so, where does that leave James Hurst, who re-signed with the team in the offseason? Is Matt Skura locked in as the starting center?
Regardless of the configuration, the coaches expect better protection against a gifted Rams defense.