First and foremost, it was a pleasure to kick off another preseason in the broadcast booth with the talented Ravens inhouse production crew and it's always great fun to work alongside Gerry Sandusky and Evan Washburn. But I'm not the only one that should be excited. After a dominating 33-7 victory over the Rams last night, Ravens fan should be thrilled about the prospects of the 2018 season.
True to his game plan, John Harbaugh stayed relatively tight to the 20-20-20 approach he has outlined for his starters this preseason – playing 20 plays Thursday night, 20 more plays against the Colts on Monday Night Football and 20 more against the Dolphins in Miami before resting the final game of the preseason schedule. The idea is that the starters will enter the regular season with about 60 plays under their belts, the equivalent of a typical single game in any season.
During their 20ish-plays against the Rams on Thursday night, the starters and more notably, the longtime vets did what we have come to expect them to do. As accustomed, we saw Terrell Suggs apply pressure off the edge (finished with one sack on the night) and Brandon Williams stack up the run game in the middle. Offensively, we saw Joe Flacco extend plays outside the structure of the offensive design to manufacture big gains down the field. But it was the more unfamiliar faces that showed up with big plays that I was most encouraged by.
Let's start with the new wide receivers that fit the mold of the basketball on grass analogy that I have so often come to use. John Brown is the new burner that can take the top off the defense (17-yard reception) with Michael Crabtree being the feature player (30 receiving yards) that the Ravens haven't really had since Steve Smith Sr. Willie Snead is the wild-card of the group, but I was extremely impressed with him as a player and teammate in our production meeting, and if he can match anywhere near the productivity of his 2015 and 2016 seasons with the New Orleans Saints (141 receptions for 1,879 yards and seven touchdowns), the Ravens have a chance to be a very dynamic passing attack in 2018.
Adding to that passing attack is another new target that I am extremely excited about, Hayden Hurst. If you watched the broadcast of the game, you saw me telestrate just how versatile Hurst can be. Marty Mornhinweg lined him up as a traditional "Y", in the slot, flexed out wide, inside the 4x1 bunch and, most impressively, alone on the solo side of the 4x1 formations. Hurst is not just a one-trick pony either; he can hold-up at the point of attack as a blocker and we saw him 20 yards down the field springing Alex Collins for another big gain, as well as the motion back in the backfield. Hurst gives the Ravens some diversity as a complete football player in the molds of Shannon Sharpe and Todd Heap that were obviously so good for our 2000s teams.
Another pass catcher that had more of an unexpected standout performance was Breshad Perriman with three catches for 71 yards and a touchdown. More than the productivity itself was the way in which he went about it – catching the ball with his hands extended from his body and not allowing it to get into his chest, something he has struggled with in his career. But unfortunately, one solid performance may not be enough to erase the underwhelming output of Perriman since his arrival as a first-round pick in 2015. Unfortunately for him, the writing may already be on the wall. To justify the Ravens keeping six wide receivers, that fifth and sixth would have to have a significant impact on special teams, something we haven't really seen from Perriman. And even still, just to become that sixth player on the WR depth chart, he would have to beat out new draft picks Jaleel Scott and Jordan Lasley, along with Tim White, who missed all of last season on IR and is the leading candidate for the returner job. That may be too much to overcome for Perriman at this point in his career, but he certainly put out some good tape on Thursday night.
While it was Kamalei Correa who had the breakout defensive performance in the HOF game, it was Tim Williams who did the same on Thursday. Williams was drafted last season as a promising pass rusher but failed to make any significant contributions with just six tackles, one QB hit and no sacks in 2017. But against the Rams on Thursday night, Williams certainly looked the part. He was flying around the field finishing with a game-high five tackles, one sack and another QB hit. If Williams can continue on that pace and pair with Suggs and Judon, they have the workings to have another dominant defensive front and can provide pressure without having to sell out with a blitz package.
All in all, the Ravens, 2-0 to start the preseason, put on a dominant display on Thursday, albeit against a Rams team that didn't play their starters at all. But that isn't the Ravens' fault, you can only line up and play against the players they put across from you. And at the end of the day, they are all collecting checks as professional football players. So while some may argue it wasn't a true test, I would beg to differ.