Troy Smith can do a lot on the football field.
That much he proved when he escaped what appeared to be a certain sack and took off down the field late in the second quarter. Smith proceeded to break an ankle tackle near the line of scrimmage and made two more Vikings miss before sliding down to an 18-yard gain.
Smith played the entire first half, and offered flashes of poise and playmaking ability required of an NFL starter. Seeing the second-year quarterback display those traits behind a patchwork offensive line left the Ravens 'coaching staff focusing on his explosive potential.
"We didn't protect the quarterback the way you have to," offensive coordinator Cam Cameron said. "Troy did make some plays with his legs. He has a knack for that."
After being pushed into the starting role in the final two games of last season, Smith enters this year with a real opportunity to be the No. 1 quarterback. What sets him apart from fellow field generals Kyle Boller and Joe Flacco is his improvisational style.
That has led to big plays from Smith, but it also aids his teammates.
On the Ravens' second play from scrimmage, after Smith had connected with tight end Adam Bergen for a 7-yard gain on first down, the Ohio State product saw something that he didn't like at the line. He stepped back and commanded the attention of the offense as he barked out an audible. The play now called for a run up the middle by rookie tailback Ray Rice.
Forty-two yards later, Rice was finally dragged down.
"I was just trying to adjust and improvise on the play," Smith remembered after the game. "The routes are not going to be as they're drawn on the chalkboard [all the time], and it's going to take your feet sometimes to make something happen. I was just trying to keep the drive going."
Rice and Smith keyed an impressive ground attack early in the game. Three plays after Rice's monster play, Smith rolled out on a 10-yard bootleg and brought the Ravens to within 6 yards of paydirt.
Rice put the Ravens on the board with the touchdown run. The rookie finished with 77 yards on eight attempts, while Smith added 35 rushing yards on three runs.
Because they were able to accomplish so much on the ground, Smith had only a few opportunities to display his arm. When he did, though, he generally made good decisions and put the ball in position to be caught.
"We have to help the quarterback move," head coach John Harbaugh said. "If the ball is in your catching zone, you have to catch it. Troy didn't get a lot of snaps in the first half, but he handled things well."
Still, there was room for improvement.
As the half neared an end, Smith threw just behind Mark Clayton, breaking from the left on a short slant route. The ball was tipped and intercepted by the Vikings' Darren Sharper.
After the game, Smith acknowledged that he may have been trying too hard.
"I can definitely keep getting better. The pick towards the end of the half was totally my fault," he said. "The inside read was there. I'm not going to say I was getting greedy; I was just trying to give a guy a chance to make a play, and I should have gone elsewhere."
At this stage in the season, though, Harbaugh could deal with mistakes resulting from aggressive play.
"They had some good moments and some not-so-good moments," Harbaugh said of Smith and Boller, who teamed to play all but the final 8 minutes of the game. "They had some opportunities to learn in a game like this. They both showed they can move the football in this league."
According to Harbaugh, Smith and Boller now appear to have a leg up in the Ravens' quarterback competition.
"I think Troy and Kyle by the basis of practice and what they've done so far have separated themselves from Joe in terms of being ready to line up and win a football game for us at this level."
Things did not go perfectly for Smith and the Ravens in their preseason home opener. But as the young quarterback knows, things don't always go as they are drawn up in the game plan. Troy Smith's ability to improvise will be an invaluable asset as the team gears up for the season.