It was dress rehearsal week in the NFL as teams from across their league showcased their predicted starters for the most, if not all of the first half during their week three preseason games. However, the Ravens are not most teams. Because of the additional Hall of Fame game added to their preseason schedule, this was already the Ravens' fourth game and therefore time to identify some depth, hash out some of the positional battles that have carried over from camp and start to shape what will become the 53-man roster.
Missing both of their starting offensive tackles, Head Coach John Harbaugh and Offensive Coordinator Marty Mornhinweg decided it wasn't worth the risk to Joe Flacco and didn't even dress him. And without Flacco, no need for the starting receivers to dress either. So with half the offensive line and nearly all of the starting skill players in street clothes, the Ravens offense faced a Dolphins defense that played their starters for most of the first half, and it showed.
Robert Griffin III and the Ravens offense suffered through a lackluster opening two quarters that was rain soaked and sloppy. Snaps were errant. Throws were off target. Griffin was sacked two times. But honestly, this wasn't totally unexpected. I already mentioned that for the most part, this was backups against starters but it's also a game I would have had circled once the preseason schedule was released – the dreaded third (and even worse in this case, the fourth) preseason game being on the road. Your team is in the lull of preseason with just the faintest light at the end of the tunnel and now tack on the furthest road trip of the preseason as well as the dreary weather… you could have all but expected a dull start. But whatever energy the Ravens found at halftime is what carried them through to a still undefeated 2018 preseason and their 12th straight win in preseason games.
In the second half, the Ravens found their rhythm as Lamar Jackson opened up the running game led by a scorching 65-yard rushing touchdown by De'Lance Turner, who took it straight up the gut and didn't look back, followed by yet another dazzling scoring run by Jackson himself.
But it wasn't just the runs that were impressive this time around. Jackson, who has struggled with timing and touch throws in the short passing game, finished an impressive 7 for 10 with 98 yards and a touchdown. He missed a couple easy throws early, but settled in by hitting a "Texas" route to running back Mark Thompson for a 16-yard gain that preceded his own touchdown run. That throw set the tone for the rest of the night as he was more accurate and comfortable in the passing offense from that point forward.
Accuracy is the key word, but when I use accuracy, I'm not just referring to completion percentage. His 70 percent rate was excellent, particularly when you compare it to the 40 percent, 38 percent and 46 percent he had in his first three games, but I'm talking more about ball placement than just completions. This was on full display on the touchdown pass to DeVier Posey early in the fourth quarter. Jackson was rolling out to his left, a difficult task for any quarterback not named Aaron Rodgers, and threw a perfect strike to Posey. Put it right in front of him on a full sprint crossing the field, allowing Posey to maintain his speed and carry that momentum to the sideline, where he outran one defender and jumped through another to complete the touchdown. Had Jackson thrown that ball on Posey's body or backside hip, it probably would have still resulted in a catch and therefore been a positive for Jackson's completion percentage, but there is no way Posey could have maintained his speed and scored on the play. That is what accuracy means for an NFL quarterback, and Jackson showed some true maturation in that process on Saturday night.
Defensively, we saw much of the same from the Ravens as they finished with five sacks and two interceptions, but it was the way they came that was a little bit surprising. Baltimore has been blessed with excellent interior defensive line play from Sam Adams and Tony Siragusa, to Haloti Ngata and now Brandon Williams and Michael Pierce. We are almost spoiled at how well these guys not only stuff the interior running game but also provide pressure and move the pocket for opposing quarterbacks and force them into the edge rush of Terrell Suggs. Well on Saturday night, we saw the reverse of this. Our outside rushers were so dominant that the Dolphins' quarterbacks were having to climb up in the pocket and into the awaiting arms of our interior defense. Za'Darius Smith and Brent Urban, despite not being officially credited with a sack, were nuisances all night creating opportunities for delayed rushers like Kenny Young and Patrick Onwuasor from the inside linebacker spot, and Chris Wormley notched his first sack from the inside. This pass rushing unit, from all angles and positions on the field, is going to be a tough match-up for any offensive unit and will once again be the anchor of the Ravens team this season.
In the back half, we saw another interception from the 6-foot-3 Stanley Jean-Baptiste, a once elite level college defender but now journeyman NFL player who may very well be playing himself onto this Week 1 roster. The suspension of Jimmy Smith certainly helps his case, but it's hard to overlook his play this preseason as well. Jean-Baptiste has the length at the position that was made so popular by the Seattle Seahawks and their Legion of Boom defense with Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner. With his long body and superior reach, Jean-Baptiste, despite his foot speed, can make the angles in which an opposing quarterback has to drop to drop a ball over the top very severe. Against the Dolphins, we saw just that as Jean-Baptiste was in trail coverage as David Fales tried to lob one in over his head, but again, with Jean-Baptiste's length, he can seal the defender and elevate for the ball. This is why Jean-Baptiste was originally drafted in the second round in 2014 and he may finally be putting it all together at the perfect time for the Ravens.
All in all, it was a good developmental game for the depth of the Ravens and along with Thursday against Washington, where we will certainly see more of the second- and third-string players, will help the Ravens make decisions about who makes the roster come Week 1 against the Bills on Sept. 9.