Baltimore Ravens: Winners and Losers from Preseason Opener
Although they ultimately defeated the Atlanta Falcons 31-17, the Baltimore Ravens can't be feeling too good about their performance on Thursday night. It's only the first preseason game so there is time to fix the team's problems, many of which were on display during the first half when starters were playing.
The defense was picked apart by Matt Ryan, particularly the secondary which gave up some long plays. The offense was abysmal in the first quarter where they totaled nine offensive yards in the first quarter. Even the special teams unit was a mess, allowing a long punt return early on.
Yet despite the 10-point deficit the starters had in the second quarter, the backups played well enough to come back and win the game. There were definitely some great performances by several of these backups as the Ravens shut out the Falcons in the second half and then won the game by 14 points.
Here's a look at the Ravens winners and losers from Thursday night.
Winner: Bobby Rainey
The battle to be the Ravens' backup running back has been a disappointing one so far this training camp. Anthony Allen and Damien Berry have shown little to no improvement from last year and both backs had less than 20 rushing yards on Thursday night, despite sufficient opportunity. Even Bernard Pierce has been disappointing so far due to injuries, which kept him out of Thursday's game.
The disappointing nature of these three running backs has opened the door for undrafted rookie Bobby Rainey. So far, he's really taken advantage of it.
Rainey had the best night of any offensive player on the Ravens. He totaled 12 rushing attempts for 36 yards and three catches for 28 yards with a receiving touchdown.
Rainey has drawn comparisons to Ray Rice, of all players. Those comparisons were on display Thursday night, when Rainey's speed and elusiveness were on display. It's also very encouraging to see Rainey's receiving numbers, particularly the 18-yard touchdown, which show he may be the second-best pass-catching running back on the Ravens roster.
The game was a big one personally for Rainey, who grew up a little more than a half an hour away from Atlanta. He put on a show for his hometown and proved that the positive buzz surrounding him in training camp was indeed warranted. It's early but I really like Rainey's chances to make the roster and I think that he could even be a possible dark horse candidate to be Rice's backup.
Loser: Ravens Tight Ends
This loss wasn't due to poor performance as the play of the Ravens tight ends wasn't too disappointing on Thursday night. Ed Dickson caught two passes for 15 yards and he scored the starting offense's only touchdown of the game. Backups Billy Bajema and Matt Balasavage did about the same with 12 yards each, though Bajema did manage a four-yard touchdown in the third quarter.
The main problem with this tight end corps is injuries. Dennis Pitta is out for basically the whole preseason thanks to a broken bone and that really hurts the Ravens offense.
Even though Dickson starts most of the games, he and Pitta essentially get the same amount of reps thanks to the Ravens playbook, which calls for lots of plays with two tight ends. Though Pitta should be back for the regular season, he's missing out on reps and he could fall behind Dickson in the tight end hierarchy. That is, if Dickson is still healthy enough to play.
Dickson suffered a shoulder sprain on Thursday night on his touchdown play. He did not return to the game after that and now, he could be at risk for missing the rest of the preseason as well.
It's never a good thing when the top two tight ends on the depth chart are out with significant injuries. The next man on the depth chart, believe it or not, is Bajema. He's basically a stereotypical blocking tight end who struggles to make plays in the receiving game and his only real value comes as a red-zone target.
There's also undrafted rookie Balasavage, who before the injury looked like he would be cut. Now either he or Davon Drew could fight for a practice squad spot while Bajema looks likely to stay on the active roster as injury insurance. Bajema and Drew standing atop the tight end depth chart at anytime is a scary thought, so Dickson and Pitta had better get healthy as soon as possible.
Winner: Joe Flacco
Early on, Joe Flacco did not play well. For the entire first quarter, both he and the offense failed to get a first down as they totaled nine yards.
Initially John Harbaugh only wanted his starters to play the first quarter, but that changed, likely due to their woeful performance. So Flacco stayed into the second quarter and this is where he got the numbers that made him a winner for Thursday night.
Flacco's connection with Torrey Smith looks like it's building from last season and it was on display in the second quarter. Flacco found Smith for along the sideline for a 15-yard completion that got them a first down on third-and-long. Later on in the drive, Flacco found Smith open across the middle for 25 more yards.
He connected on a 10-yard pass with likely third-string receiver Jacoby Jones, while in the red zone. Flacco then capped off the drive, and his night, with a 9-yard touchdown to Ed Dickson.
Flacco's final numbers actually look pretty good as he was 9-for-12 with 88 yards and a touchdown. Incomplete passes weren't a problem with him and the offense early on,but they weren't picking up enough yards after the catch. Once he settled down, Flacco looked great and his strong second quarter emphasized that he's still the offensive leader for this team.
Loser: Punt Coverage Team
Last season the Ravens punt coverage team was a clear weakness. They finished the year ranked 24th in yards allowed and allowed two punt return touchdowns. Like most of the Ravens special teams last year, punt return coverage is something the Ravens need to improve on.
If Thursday was any indication, they haven't improved yet. The Ravens gave up a 45-yard return to Dominique Franks in the second quarter.
Thankfully a touchdown was avoided, though the play was still pretty embarrassing. It's even more embarrassing because both Emanuel Cook and Albert McClellan had decent angles on Franks, yet they both missed the tackle.
Punt return coverage will definitely need to be an area of improvement in the future. The Ravens defense is usually good enough to prevent a lot of points from being scored, which is why any punt return or kick return touchdown is absolutely crippling. For now, both McClellan and Cook will definitely need to show improvement with their tackling if either backup fancies playing on special teams in 2012.
Winner: Omar Brown
On a night that most Ravens defensive backs wish they could forget, Omar Brown had a night to remember. He intercepted one pass while also recovering two fumbles.
As an undrafted rookie, Brown seemingly faces long odds to make the final roster. Especially at his position of safety, where he'll be stuck behind two great players in Bernard Pollard and Ed Reed. Even if one of those two go down, backups like Christian Thompson and Sean Considine would likely play instead.
Last night wasn't just an aberration either, as Brown constantly gives his all while on the practice field. He's even had one of the biggest hits in training camp with a thumper that he laid on Matt Balasavage. With this kind of work ethic, Brown might be able to make the practice squad or even the final roster.
Loser: Starting Secondary
The Atlanta Falcons came out Thursday night ready to throw the ball a lot. Matt Ryan was eager to get some balls to Pro Bowl receiver Roddy White and even more eager to get second-year wideout Julio Jones involved. The Ryan-to-Jones connection looked brilliant as Jones ended the night with six catches for 109 yards and a touchdown.
Let's not forget who was defending these Falcons wideouts. Or at least who they said they were, as Lardarius Webb had said that the Ravens secondary is the best in the entire NFL. This kind of talk demands backup and in Week 1 of the preseason, the Ravens were unable to get it done.
Not all the blame should extend to Webb though as Cary Williams also had a rough night. He lined up against Jones and ended up allowing him to catch four passes and a touchdown on the opening drive. This type of play is not at all good for Williams, who is being pushed for a starting job by Jimmy Smith and Williams may actually consider himself lucky that Smith didn't play last night.
The second and third-teamers were able to redeem their starters. The entire second half of the game was a shutout as the Ravens went on to tie and eventually beat the Falcons by two touchdowns. The Falcons backup quarterbacks all struggled as they gave up three turnovers to Omar Brown.
Granted, the duo of White and Jones is as explosive a duo of receivers as there is in the entire NFL. Still Webb, Williams and Smith, when he gets back, will need to better at covering. It'll be fascinating to see how the starting corners respond next week when Megatron and Matthew Stafford come to Baltimore next week.
Winner: Deonte Thompson
It is amazing to think that three undrafted rookies arguably had the best performances of any Ravens on Thursday night. Then again this was a game that was won by backups, so maybe it shouldn't come as a surprise. None of these players are guaranteed starters because of one preseason game, so that also needs to be kept in mind.
This third undrafted player I'm speaking of is Deonte Thompson, a receiver who is likely fighting to be fifth or sixth on the depth chart. He made the most of his opportunities though, with three catches for 53 yards and a touchdown. The touchdown was his longest catch of the night at 22 yards and it was the touchdown that gave the Ravens their first lead of the night.
Some credit should also be given to Curtis Painter, as the embattled Indianapolis Colts quarterback from a year ago threw three second-half touchdowns. It looks like the connection between Painter and Thompson could be something to watch. Hopefully that will translate into Thompson getting more looks from Tyrod Taylor or even Joe Flacco.
This is not the first that Ravens fans have heard of Thompson as he's turned heads during OTAs and minicamp. That kind of track record should prove that this game was no fluke and Thompson will continue to impress fans over the remainder of the preseason.
Loser: Gino Gradkowski
It may seem unfair to pin the failure of any entire unit upon one player. Unfortunately though, it was Gino Gradkowski who pretty much summed up everything that the offensive line did wrong.
Thanks to Matt Birk's recent injury, Gradkowski got the start at center. He was not the only rookie to start along the offensive line, as Kelechi Osemele also got to start at right tackle thanks to all the time that Bryant McKinnie has missed at training camp.
The inexperience, however, clearly showed as both players seemed unfamiliar with their roles on offense and Joe Flacco got hit a lot during his short time on the field. Eventually McKinnie entered the game, but by then most of the Falcons backups were in on defense.
Gradkowski was directly to blame for one play where Sean Witherspoon hit Flacco on a free blitz. It was a miscommunication that Gradkowski did take credit for after realizing what he'd done.
Part of the problem is that the offensive line hasn't had reps together. For now it looks like the Ravens want to go older with players like Bobbie Williams and Birk projected to start when healthy. This may be good because even though Osemele and Gradkowski have potential, it can take a while to learn to play as an offensive lineman in the NFL, and some players are just better off learning on the bench.
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