As the case has been throughout the preseason, the Ravens were up and down Thursday night at M&T Bank Stadium.
Mistakes doomed the Ravens in the 34-27 loss to the Carolina Panthers, as the starters played the first two and a half quarters in their final dress rehearsal of the preseason. The Ravens turned the ball over four times, three of which were returned for touchdowns, and also gave up a 74-yard punt return touchdown.
"With what we did tonight, we're not going to win a lot of football games doing that," quarterback Joe Flacco said.
The starting offense moved the ball better than it has all preseason, picking up 251 yards and 20 first downs in their time.
But turnovers were the difference.
Flacco threw two interceptions and running back Bernard Pierce also coughed up a fumble. Pierce's fumble and one of Flacco's interceptions were returned for touchdowns.
"We have to protect the ball better," Head Coach John Harbaugh said. "We know we can do that, but we didn't."
The turnovers overshadowed what was otherwise a strong overall showing. The offense moved the ball and the defense was stout, and other than the four big-play returns, the team had plenty of positives to take away from the night.
"Very pleased about really most everything about the game," Harbaugh said. "I liked the way we played. I liked how we played; I just didn't like the four returns for touchdowns."
The offense could not have started the game any better.
On the opening drive, Flacco marched his unit 69 yards down the field for a touchdown in nine plays. Flacco spread the ball around to three different targets, and running back Ray Rice found big holes on the ground before ultimately plunging in for a 1-yard touchdown run.
"We opened the game the way we want to play and know how we can play," Offensive Coordinator Jim Caldwell said. "We were crisp. We were fast. And we were in rhythm."
After that opening drive, the offense had several miscues that ended up leading to points for Carolina. Communication issues were part of the problem, which was illustrated on Flacco's pick-six.
Flacco threw a third-down pass intended for wide receiver Tandon Doss, but the two weren't on the same page and the ball ended up getting intercepted. After the play, television cameras caught Flacco giving Doss an earful.
Later in the first half, with the Ravens in the red zone, Flacco got picked off again on a pass intended for tight end Visanthe Shiancoe.
"It was just a lot of miscommunication," Flacco said. "Tonight was one of those games that we did a lot of good things, but we had some miscommunication and turned the ball over too much.
Flacco and the first-team offense played into the second half, and the group was able to put together two scoring drives coming out of the locker room.
The offense drove 48 yards down the field on the opening drive of the second half before settling on a 32-yard field goal by Justin Tucker. On the next drive, Flacco connected with undrafted rookie wide receiver Marlon Brown on a 24-yard touchdown. Brown was a bright spot on the night, catching four passes for 59 yards and the touchdown, making a strong case for his spot on the roster.
Flacco finished the night 18-of-24 passing for 169 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions.
While the offense was uneven, the first-team defense was stellar. The group gave up only three points and just 68 yards of total offense.
"I thought they played well," Harbaugh said. "I thought we stopped the run, that was a definitely a goal going in."
Improving the run defense was a focus for the Ravens after last week's game against Atlanta, and the group shined in that area. The Ravens won the battle at the line of scrimmage and stuffed the Panthers'* *running game.
"We really wanted to correct some issues we had last week, just as far as playing fundamental football and with proper technique," linebacker Daryl Smith said. "We came out and I think for the most part did that."
Once the starters went to the sidelines, quarterback Tyrod Taylor had a miscue of his own, throwing an interception on his first drive in the game. The pick by Panthers cornerback D.J. Moore was returned 33 yards for a touchdown.
After that play, the second string made a run at a comeback for the third week in a row. Running back Damien Berry scored on a 10-yard touchdown and Tucker drilled a 36-yard field goal, which brought the Ravens within a touchdown midway through the fourth quarter.
The Panthers added another field goal and were able to hold off the late rally.
Now the Ravens will shift their focus to wrapping up the preseason and preparing for the regular-season opener against the Denver Broncos on Sept. 5. Most of the starters won't see the field in the preseason finale next week against the Rams, and the Ravens will put much of their attention on getting ready for the Broncos.
"I told our team we're preparing for two games – we're preparing for St. Louis and we're preparing for Denver," Harbaugh said. "You prepare for the games at hand but you also prepare for the season."