Lamar Jackson threw passes to Marquise “Hollywood” Brown, Sammy Watkins and Mark Andrews an hour before Saturday night’s preseason opener. He put on his pads and helmet and jogged out onto the M&T Bank Stadium field 40 minutes before kickoff. He gave every indication that he might actually play quarterback Saturday night against the New Orleans Saints.
Then Jackson changed back into street clothes, and the offense’s night unfolded in a 17-14 win as if that were always the smartest decision.
If Jackson is to one day earn a team-record deal, the Ravens wisely avoided putting their franchise’s most important investment at significant risk. Their offensive line entered Saturday with only two projected Week 1 starters available, center Bradley Bozeman and right tackle Alejandro Villanueva. It entered halftime missing Bozeman, who left with a minor ankle injury, and with Jackson’s replacement, Trace McSorley, already having taken four hits.
An opportunistic defense — one that forced six turnovers, including a decisive interception — ultimately lifted the Ravens to their NFL-best 18th straight preseason win, the longest such streak over the past 25 preseasons, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. (The team last lost on Sept. 3, 2015, about a month before the Orioles’ Chris Davis won his second Major League Baseball home run title.) Inside linebacker Patrick Queen (two tackles for loss) flashed his star potential. Kicker Jake Verity proved an unlikely hero. Quarterback Tyler Huntley delivered a late rally.
But other than maybe injured rookie wide receiver Rashod Bateman’s timetable for a return, no football matter in Baltimore is more urgent than the state of the Ravens’ offensive line. Two years ago, during Jackson’s NFL Most Valuable Player-worthy season, it was among the NFL’s best. Last year, with guard Marshal Yanda retired and left tackle Ronnie Stanley lost for half the season, the Ravens’ pass protection folded in some of the season’s most important junctures, including a season-ending playoff loss to the Buffalo Bills.
On Sunday, the Ravens’ line was far from healthy and far from ready for Week 1. Stanley, still recovering from ankle surgery, practiced Monday and Wednesday and was off Tuesday and Thursday. Rookie guard Ben Cleveland, after suffering an undisclosed midweek injury, did not dress for the game. Neither did guard Kevin Zeitler, who’s recovering from a foot strain. Bozeman made it through just one quarter before entering the team’s medical tent; he returned for the second half in street clothes, his right ankle taped up after a “pretty minor” sprain, according to coach John Harbaugh. Only Villanueva, still adjusting to the right tackle position, made it to Sunday in good shape.
Harbaugh said he hopes the Ravens can have their top offensive line intact by the team’s third and final preseason game, an Aug. 28 matchup with the Washington Football Team in Landover. But he allowed for the possibility that the Ravens’ starting unit could enter Week 1 having only practiced together.
“You know, you’re just going to have to do what you have to do,” he said. “I mean, if we don’t get them together because of circumstances, then it’s like we’re not going to play. We can’t say we’re not going to play. So it’ll be what it is. Hopefully ,we can get them out there for the last game. There’s a lot of time and a lot of circumstances between now and then. You look at the Saints — they didn’t have all their guys out there, either. It’s the way it works in the NFL.”
The Ravens’ makeshift offensive line looked overmatched at times Saturday, as it has for much of training camp. Tyre Phillips, a contender at left guard with Cleveland and Ben Powers, was again pressed into service at left tackle. Powers started at left guard, then kicked out to right tackle when Villanueva left. Patrick Mekari started between Bozeman and Villanueva at right tackle. The mixing and matching continued all night.
Only an aggressive Ravens defense kept the game within reach. The Ravens forced six turnovers, including three on the Saints’ first four possessions. Safety Geno Stone had two interceptions, and three Ravens defenders — inside linebacker Malik Harrison, defensive lineman Justin Madubuike and safety Ar’Darius Washington — forced a fumble.
It was not a banner night for the offense, which went without Andrews, Brown and Watkins, along with contributors like wide receiver Miles Boykin and running back Gus Edwards. McSorley, dealing with back spasms throughout the game, finished 11-for-18 for 86 yards and rushed a jump-ball interception as he was pressured off the right edge.
His first four drives totaled 14 yards and included a failed fourth-and-1 and a 56-yard field goal from kicker Justin Tucker. The Ravens’ only points until the fourth quarter came via special teams; after Tucker opened the game’s scoring in the second quarter, undrafted rookie kicker Jake Verity was accurate from 42 yards and 53 yards in the second quarter, drawing the deficit to 14-9.
Huntley, who played the second half, was 12-for-16 for 79 yards. As a runner, he was more volatile, fumbling away a potential scoring drive, but also more dynamic, rushing seven times for 43 yards, including the go-ahead touchdown from 7 yards out with 6:39 remaining. Jackson, watching his fellow South Floridian from the sideline, bounced in delight as the offense celebrated.
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The game ended in the most expected of ways: with another turnover. Saints starter Taysom Hill (8-for-12 for 81 yards) had thrown a pick. Backup Jameis Winston (7-for-12 for 96 yards and a touchdown) had thrown one, too. So naturally, third-string quarterback Ian Book’s last pass ended in the hands of fifth-round pick Shaun Wade, the Raven cornerback turning around just in time to secure the defense’s sixth takeaway with 1:49 remaining. Cornerback Marlon Humphrey sprinted 20 yards onto the field in celebration, leading a handful of teammates, and the Ravens were in victory formation soon after.
“It felt pretty good just to get out and get back to playing games,” Harbaugh said. “Obviously, it was awesome going against different competition. We’ve got some things we need to clean up, so, we’ll go back, study the tape and then get ready to come into practice to clean those things up before we get down to Carolina [for this week’s joint practices]. But just keep grinding, keep working to get better. That’s the main thing. But it felt pretty good just, again, getting out there and playing a game tonight.”
Preseason, Week 2
Saturday, 7 p.m.
TV: Chs. 11, 7
Radio: 97.9 FM, 1090 AM