Five thoughts on the Ravens' 34-27 preseason loss to the Carolina Panthers Thursday night at M&T Bank Stadium:
Offense In Flacco's Hands
If we learned anything about the 2013 Ravens in this game, it's that they really are in Joe Flacco's hands now. They're going to go as he goes, for better or worse. When he tossed a couple of interceptions in the first half, the Ravens found themselves down by 17 points. But when he cleaned up the mistakes after halftime, he led a pair of scoring drives and brought the Ravens back into the game before exiting. But regardless of how he fared as the game went along, he never stopped firing, usually out of the shotgun formation. Although the Ravens ran the ball decently for the first time in this preseason, it was Flacco's passing that moved the ball … or didn't. He was relentless either way, like the natural three-point shooter in basketball who keeps chucking up shots even when they aren't falling, figuring they eventually will. It's a long way from the "ground and pound" style the Ravens featured for so many years, and get used to it.
Offense Holding Back
Before you start making sweeping judgments about the Ravens offense in the wake of this game, keep in mind that Flacco again barely attempted any passes longer than 10 or 15 yards. Deep balls are a key component of Offensive Coordinator Jim Caldwell's attack and you'll see plenty of them come September, but Caldwell simply has not unfurled them in the preseason. It seems he is focusing on trying to establish the mid-range passing game, i.e., find the best targets for Flacco now that Anquan Boldin and Dennis Pitta are gone – a major concern for sure, and still unresolved at this point. For much of the game, Flacco was throwing to rookie receivers who were getting their shot, such as Marlon Brown and Aaron Mellete, in what was clearly an experiment. Flacco exhibited nice chemistry with veteran Brandon Stokley, and Brown caught four passes for 59 yards and a touchdown – a performance that may have earned him a job.
Panthers Score 34, But Not On Ravens DefenseThe Ravens defense looked tighter than it did a week ago against Atlanta. If that sounds strange on a night when the other team scored 34 points and won, look closer. All four of Carolina's touchdowns came on returns, one via a punt, one via a fumble and two via interceptions. Carolina's starting offense did not reach the end zone, and in fact, did not come close. The Ravens' defensive front completely shut down the Panthers' running game and barely allowed 100 yards of offense on 33 plays when Carolina's Cam Newton was under center. In Newton's defense, his receivers dropped a handful of passes that could have sustained drives and produced points. But overall, the Ravens' defense was sound. Linebacker Daryl Smith again led the charge, as has been the case throughout the preseason, and rookie Brandon Williams and veteran Marcus Spears also made nice plays inside. Depth along the defensive front is going to be one of the Ravens' strengths.
On one of Flacco's two interceptions, he was clearly expecting receiver Tandon Doss to run a different route when he put the ball up, and after the Panthers returned the pick for a touchdown, the quarterback gave Doss an earful coming off the field. It's not always clear in such cases who is at fault, but generally, the quarterback knows what play he called or what the right read was. That seemed to be the case this time, as the coaches also lectured Doss on the sideline – not a good sign for Doss' prospects. But Flacco's other interception was on him. Carolina linebacker Luke Kuechly, an impressive player, sniffed out Visanthe Shiancoe's route over the middle, waited for Flacco to put the ball up and pounced. That gave Flacco four interceptions in three preseason games, a troubling trend regardless of who is to blame.
When the Ravens scratched coverage gunner David Reed for the playoff game in Denver last year, the Broncos ran two kicks back for touchdowns. Thursday night, a day after trading Reed to the Indianapolis Colts, the Ravens gave up another touchdown on a punt return … Shiancoe was the best tight end on the field for the Ravens, making two catches while Dallas Clark dropped one right in his hands … Cam Newton getting flushed out of the pocket is a scary sight for the other team … It seems 100 percent certain that Marshal Yanda will start the regular-season opener after he returned to the field Thursday night, but Lardarius Webb was slightly more cautious after also making his successful preseason debut. Stay tuned … After watching his team roll up almost twice as many first downs (27-14) as Carolina and more than twice as many yards (357-173), Ravens Head Coach John Harbaugh certainly was not sounding any alarms after his team's first preseason defeat. "I like the way we played, how we played. I just didn't like the four returns for touchdowns," he said.