Not unlike most preseason games, watching the Ravens play the Colts last night reminded me of the 1966 feature film, "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly." There were certainly "Good" points during the game, mainly in the first half, in which the offense played with a nice cadence and the defense stiffened in critical situations, inside the red zone and on third downs specifically. But there were certainly some other phases of the game that were both "Bad" and "Ugly" that the Ravens must address as the preseason schedule comes to a close over the course of the remaining two weeks.
First, let's take a good look at the "Good." The new weapons on offense have been clicking and were once again in sync with Joe Flacco as the quarterback. Last week, you heard me refer to a group of wide receivers as a basketball team – each one having a different responsibility on the court. You have a point guard in which the offense in run through, you have a shooting guard that can get you points in a hurry, you have a big man that can clear out the middle of the lane and you may have an above the rim type player that can jump up and secure every rebound. Well, that is very much the case for this Ravens offense … particularly with the new faces at the wide receiver position.
First, you have John Brown, whose role is to be the speedster that can blow the top off the defense. Well, we saw that on the very first offensive play from scrimmage as Brown split and beat the two-deep safety look from the Colts, and while he had a step, he and Joe Flacco were unable to complete what would have been a very tough pitch and catch. Nonetheless, he played his role and kept the defense honest, forcing them to cover the back half of the field, something that defenses playing the Ravens last year did not have to be overly concerned with. Later, I believe on the very next series, we saw Willie Snead IV get his first catch of the game (and preseason), a crossing route in the intermediate depth of the field. He was able to get behind the underneath defenders and in front of the deep safeties (having to account for the speed of Brown that had already nearly burned them). This is where Snead is going to make his money – crossing patterns, choice routes and anywhere in that 10 to15-yard range down the field. Then a series or two later, we saw, Michael Crabtree get his first reception of the game – an out and up on the field side boundary as he was the sole receiver away from the trips alignment. He beat his defender with a good release and settled in that soft zone before the safety could break all the way to the sideline – an explosive gain of 29 yards.
Michael Crabtree is going to be the traditional No. 1 wide receiver running the entire route tree while Snead and Brown are moved around to exploit favorable matchups for the offense. We saw just that on the Brown touchdown. Flacco had a trips formation to his left, with Brown as the inside slot receiver. The safety to the trips side had to honor the two receivers to his outside and favor the field, but Brown used his speed to quickly dip past the dropping backer and between the splitting safeties for a quick-strike touchdown that Flacco delivered perfectly on time.
This doesn't even take into consideration the developing group of tight ends (four total catches on the evening) and the running backs' ability to catch the ball out of the backfield.
I sincerely believe this offense may be the most potent we have seen in Baltimore.
Now what about the "Bad"? And this is one that you know had to drive Coach Harbaugh absolutely crazy with the amount of time and energy they spend coaching it – special teams. The Ravens fumbled their first punt return as Tim White was fighting for extra yards and had the ball ripped out of his hands. Then later in the first half, White was back to field another punt and was flagged for an invalid fair catch signal … and that wasn't even the most frustrating part of the play. White attempted to catch the ball in the air and in doing so, allowed it to bounce about 2 yards in front of him. Luckily for him, that ball checked up rather than taking a quick bounce directly into his body to cause another turnover opportunity. The punt return position is one that the Ravens have been trying to address for at least the last two seasons and I'm not sure they have it completely figured out just yet.
As if the punt return unit wasn't making Jerry Rosburg's evening bad enough, the punt team added some fuel to the fire by allowing the Colts to block a punt, giving them first and goal and what could have been the game tying score had it not been for them wanting to avoid overtime by attempting the two-point conversion. The special teams mistakes are a surprising one for the Ravens as they are typically very solid in that capacity, but I imagine the heat is going to be turned up this week on the younger guys trying to make this team considering you do so by impressing on special teams.
Which takes us to the "Ugly"… turnovers, specifically fumbles. It wasn't just the special teams that was having trouble holding onto the ball on Monday. The offense started the game with a Flacco/Buck Allen fumble that should have been a simple third-and-1 conversion to keep their initial offensive drive alive. Instead, they have to jump on the ball and settle for a punt. Then on the ensuing defensive possession, the defense gets off the field with a three-and-out only to have White fumble the punt. The Ravens had the football on the ground twice in the first two minutes, 15 seconds of the game! They finished with game with three fumbles, two of which were lost.
Despite my proclamation that this Ravens offense have the weapons to be the best we've seen in Baltimore, this team's identity is still built on the defensive side of the ball. And while they bailed them out once, the Ravens defense isn't always going to come up with a red-zone takeaway to keep points off the board after a fumble in your opponent's territory. Fumbles make my blood boil. With interceptions, you know the risks when you drop back to pass, but when the runner has the ball secured in his arms, that should never result in a turnover! Putting the ball on the ground three times in a game is typically not going to result in a win.
Check out the best shots from Monday night's nationally-televised preseason game against the Indianapolis Colts.