Five thoughts on the Ravens' 23-17 preseason win over the Washington Redskins Saturday night at M&T Bank Stadium:
Starting Defense Breaks Conventional Wisdom
The conventional wisdom coming into the game was the Redskins offense would have its way with quarterback Robert Griffin III throwing to receivers DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon against the Ravens' injury-depleted secondary. But things didn't unfold that way, in large part because the Ravens' starting defense brought a strong pass rush for the first time in the preseason. Griffin was constantly under pressure, sacked three times and hit twice more in the first 30 minutes. The Ravens' starting corners, Chykie Brown and Dominique Franks, more than held their own, boosting their stock as they fight for roles going forward. Jackson and Garcon combined for a grand total of four receiving yards on four combined targets. As for the Ravens' pass rush, linebacker Elvis Dumervil led the way, repeatedly forcing his way into the backfield. Rookies Timmy Jernigan and Terrence Brooks also made athletic plays to sack Griffin.
O-Line Takes Step Back
Just what the Ravens and their fans didn't want to see: throwback night for the offensive line. In the first 20 minutes, the first-team unit allowed two sacks of quarterback Joe Flacco and twice failed to get any push on fourth-and-inches, scuttling potential scoring drives. Those were familiar sights in 2013, when the Ravens struggled to protect Flacco and/or run the ball, leading to an offseason overhaul of the line. The sacks weren't all the line's fault; Flacco's receivers couldn't gain separation and the quarterback held the ball too long. But right tackle Ricky Wagner did give way once, and even when Flacco wasn't sacked, he was under duress. As for the zone-stretch running game, it went nowhere, producing 17 yards on 12 carries while the starters were on the field. Granted, neither Ray Rice nor Bernard Pierce carried the ball much (Pierce left with a possible concussion) but the holes weren't there and the line's performance constituted a step backward.
Steve Smith Will Be Fun To Watch
Veteran receiver Steve Smith, Sr. has been a difference-maker on the practice field for months, from the moment he debuted with the Ravens in Organized Team Activity drills back in the spring. But he was relatively quiet in the team's first two preseason games, so fans hadn't seen the kind of playmaking he keeps delivering behind closed doors. Finally, he showed his stuff in public Saturday night. Smith was a big-time chain mover, catching six balls for 80 yards and a touchdown. It's tough to decide whether his best play was the one where he fought through four tacklers to gain 30 yards, or the diving 24-yard touchdown catch he reeled in just before halftime. He's going to be fun to watch. Flacco loves throwing to him almost as much as Derrick Mason back in the day.
Gary Kubiak Not Stubborn
It's a matter of record that Ravens Offensive Coordinator Gary Kubiak is a run-first guy. But we saw in this game that he's not stubborn about it. The Redskins' defense was feisty in the early going, hitting hard and repeatedly bringing blitzes. That cut down on the Ravens' running game and limited its effectiveness. But instead of continuing to hammer away with it, Kubiak changed course and aired things out. Despite being pressured and hit, Flacco made the Redskins pay, completing 16 of 23 pass attempts for 180 yards and a touchdown. Flacco looked sharp. Once the Ravens had the lead in the second half, they went back to the running game and had more success. That's exactly what Head Coach John Harbaugh wants to do, take a lead into the late stages of a game and run the clock out.
Besides that sack of Griffin, rookie safety Terrence Brooks also had an interception nullified by a penalty. After a slow start, he is moving up the depth chart … If you want to know why nose tackle Brandon Williams has earned a starting spot on the defensive line, go back and look at the Ravens' fourth-down stop late in the third quarter. Williams completely blew up the play, pushing his blocker into the backfield … Tyrod Taylor made his best throw of the preseason when he led Deonte Thompson perfectly on a "go" route early in the fourth quarter, producing a touchdown … That's two touchdowns in two weeks for Thompson, the kind of push that earns a guy a job. He's battling with Kamar Aiken and Michael Campanaro for the No. 5 (and maybe No. 6) receiving slot. Aiken took the early lead, but Thompson is closing fast and Campanaro caught a pair of passes and had a nice kickoff return Saturday night. It's a tough call right now.