Five thoughts on the Ravens’ 23-3 preseason win over the San Francisco 49ers Thursday night at M&T Bank Stadium:
The Ravens’ starting offense wasn’t in for long, but all it took was one series for the unit to make it clear that, as advertised, things are very different this year now that Gary Kubiak is running the show. The Ravens drove 80 yards to a touchdown in 10 plays, deftly mixing runs and passes. The running game was night-and-day different from a year ago. The line opened holes and the backs blew through them. Joe Flacco was quick, decisive and accurate, getting the ball out in a hurry while completing four passes to four receivers. Two plays never seen before, a downfield throw to the fullback (Kyle Juszczyk) and a screen pass to the tight end (Dennis Pitta), gained big yards. Yes, the 49ers were missing several defensive stalwarts, so they were more vulnerable than usual. “Don’t read too much into it,” Head Coach John Harbaugh said of the Ravens’ success. Still, after watching the Ravens’ predictable offense of 2013, it was a pleasure to watch this one: crisp, unpredictable, a revelation. If first impressions count for anything, you can safely say the Ravens are going to be better on offense in 2014.
The Ravens’ first-team defense was also in for just one series, but it didn’t fare nearly as well. The 49ers’ starting offense blew down the field on the game’s opening possession, racking up a 17-yard pass completion, a pass interference penalty, and three rushes that picked up 34 yards as the Ravens’ edge-setters failed to hold their lines. The Ravens did rise up in the red zone and make a stop, forcing a field goal, but there was no mistaking what happened in that brief passage at the start of the game: the Ravens’ defense got whipped. Yes, the sample size was extremely small, but it was an unsettling debut for a defense that has high expectations for 2014.
Most of the offensive starters played one series, but Juszczyk and right tackle Rick Wagner played the entire first half before giving way. What do they have in common? A lot. Both are second-year guys selected on the final day of the 2013 draft, Juszczyk in the fourth round, Wagner in the fifth. Both played little as rookies but have earned starting jobs this year, so both need as many reps as possible. They seemed to fare well. As expected, Kubiak deployed Juszczyk as a receiver; he caught three passes for 28 yards and also held up as a lead blocker. “He can do a wide variety of things,” Flacco said. Wagner didn’t have any issues, and the Ravens ran behind him in the red zone on their opening drive. “You didn’t notice him, which is a good thing for a right tackle,” Harbaugh said. On defense, nose tackle Brandon Williams (another second-year guy now in a starting job) also played long after the other starters were out. So did safety Matt Elam, yet another second-year guy.
The Ravens rushed for 237 yards, which was about a month’s worth of production on the ground for them a year ago. But Kubiak’s offense depends on having an effective ground game, and the Ravens’ new offensive coordinator didn’t waste any time showing that the Ravens are seriously set on righting their most debilitating offensive wrong from a year ago. As noted above, the first team line opened nice holes early, but after that group departed, the Ravens continued to pound the ball. The backup and third-teamer blockers were just as effective. Rookie back Lorenzo Taliaferro rushed for a team-high 71 yards, averaging 5.5 per carry. He moved piles when he hit them. Ray Rice, who looked quicker after losing 20 pounds in the offseason, averaged 5.5 yards per carry. Overall, the team averaged 4.9 yards on 48 carries – sky-high stuff compared to a year ago. “Fundamentally, we played very solid football. We blocked. We tackled,” Harbaugh said.
Quick hits: Justin Tucker had a busy night. He booted three field goals, including a 55-yarder, as well as two of the experimental 33-yard extra points. He also took a hard spill while trying to make a tackle on a kickoff … Rookie linebacker C.J. Mosley is quickly becoming a must-watch guy. In his first game as a pro, he led the Ravens in total tackles and collected his first sack … Asa Jackson is playing better than Chykie Brown. The 49ers attacked Brown early and collected two pass interference calls. Then Jackson made one of the nicest plays of the night, ranging back and picking off a pass. He strutted off the field, showing the edge the Ravens like.