One half of a preseason football game is hardly an indicator of a team's fortunes. But as the Ravens' first-team offense trots onto the field for its final dress rehearsal of the preseason Saturday, they'll be getting another shot at a series that proved crucial to their success last year.
The first drive of the game for the 2014 Ravens offense was a boom-or-bust proposition for them, and more often than not dictated how the rest of the game would go.
With one final crack at starting a game for himself and the starters, a good opening drive is one of many aspects of the offense that quarterback Joe Flacco wants from the starters in their final preseason work before Week 1 against the Denver Broncos.
"I think it is really important — nothing to do with the second game — but more so just so we can go into Week 1 and have as high a level of confidence as we possibly can," Flacco said. "You don't want any doubt to be able to creep into anybody's mind. You want all of the coaches and all of the players to have 100-percent confidence that we're going to go in there and light it up. So, I think for that reason, we want to go out there and play the best we can, just so we feel that extra energy going into the first week."
Despite the general protections afforded to starters in the preseason, Flacco & Co. get to go through a game-opening series three times, the final being Saturday. The first two preseason games this month showed the disparity between how the Ravens offense opens games, and how it impacts the rest of the game.
The starters needed just one series to accomplish a full night's work in the opener against the New Orleans Saints — 16 plays, 80 yards, six first downs, six points — and then it was ballcaps and smiles on the sidelines as the reserves played the rest of the game. Had they stayed in, they would have moved the ball all game, if that series was an indication.
Last Saturday's loss to the Eagles was the inverse, with interceptions by Flacco ending the first two drives and the third first-team series ending with a punt. They didn't get a chance to redeem themselves — offensive line injuries, and their normal playing time restrictions, forced the starters out of the game before they could regroup. The first interception came in the midst of an eight-play, 36-yard drive.
Were the starters in the whole game, it seems likely that what they did on the first drive would have carried over throughout the game.
In the Ravens' 11 wins last year, including the playoffs, the Ravens scored on five of their opening drives, including five of their first seven wins, with many of the scoring marches setting a tone for the rest of the game.
In their seven losses, including the playoffs, the Ravens scored just twice on their opening drive, and in Week 8 against Cincinnati put together their best opening drive of the season — an 18-play, 89-yard march that was stopped at the goal line. Remove that from consideration and they averaged barely over one first down per game on opening drives of their losses.
They sputtered coming out of the locker room late in the season, though. The Ravens had just one first down on their first offensive drive of the game in their final four regular season games. Their opening-drive touchdown against the Patriots in the AFC divisional round was their first since week 13 against the San Diego Chargers.
It was under Gary Kubiak, now head coach of the Denver Broncos, and not new offensive coordinator Marc Trestman that the opening drives so impacted the rest of the game last year.
But Trestman understands the importance of those long, grinding drives with a run-based, rhythm offense like the one he's continuing to implement in Baltimore.
"I think that the goal is to play cleaner football more than anything — to take care of the football, to eliminate the pre-snap penalties and the holding penalties and the things that stop yourself," Trestman said. "The things that take drives away are when you get out of sync and out of continuity with your drives.
"It's 11 guys [playing] at the same time, and we certainly didn't get that in the first two or three drives with the first group [last week], and we have to play clean like we did in the first week. If we play clean, you always give yourself a chance."
Trestman likely envisions drives like the one against the Saints, and to do that, he's sticking with the Ravens' tried-and-true reliance on the running game.
Nine of the 16 plays on their opening-game scoring march against the Saints were run plays. Starting running back Justin Forsett joked that after five straight run plays for himself and running back Lorenzo Taliaferro to open the game against Philadelphia, he envisioned a drive in which they ran it all the way down the field.
"I love that," he said. "Don't you love that? It would have been possible. We had a couple turnovers which stopped a little momentum, but I think we're going to be a running team like we were last year. That's where our success came from. We're still going to be balanced, but we still want to run the ball."
It's positives like that Trestman hopes to carry into the game against Washington and, by extension, the regular season.
"We have to play cleaner," Trestman said. "If we play cleaner and play as hard and as fast as we played, we'll go right back to doing what we did, and that's putting some drives together and getting points."