In the Week 1 preseason rematch of Super Bowl XLVII, the football-watching world was reminded of how the Baltimore Ravens got there 18 months before: a bruising group of running backs, a mashing offensive line and an effective Joe Flacco picking up yards in chunks.
For all of the concern about the retirement of Ray Lewis, defensive coordinator Dean Pees' 2013 unit allowed just a half-point more per game than the Super Bowl squad did, per Pro-Football-Reference.com. Meanwhile, the vaunted rushing attack averaged a league-worst 3.1 yards per carry, and Flacco turned in a career-worst 73.1 passer efficiency rating.
Instead, the Ravens hired Gary Kubiak to rebuild the offense and, in the process, keep the $120 million they invested in Flacco from becoming a sunk cost.
In Kubiak's first test, against the vaunted San Francisco 49ers defense, he passed with flying colors.
Fast Tempo, Fast Start
The Ravens offense got right to work. It ran at a quick pace, mixing in some no-huddle, and picked up yards quickly.
Trading strong runs by Bernard Pierce and Ray Rice with complete Flacco passes to all of his top targets—including new receiver Steve Smith and rehabbed tight end Dennis Pitta—the Ravens marched down the field in just 10 plays, taking just 4:59 off the clock. When Pierce punched it in from two yards out, the Ravens took a lead they'd never relinquish.
Flacco's day was already done, but going 4-of-5 passing for 52 yards against a deep 49ers defense missing only a couple of starters? You couldn't ask for any more out of one drive.
The Ravens quarterback was quoted after the game saying, via Jeff Zrebiec of The Baltimore Sun:
It was nice. It felt good to get out here in a game-type situation and feel the nerves of a real game. I enjoyed being out there and doing it for real, and I thought we did pretty well. We moved the ball methodically, with precision, and got it in the end zone.
The best news of all was how the Ravens offensive line moved in space. Eugene Monroe, Marshal Yanda and Co. looked athletic and aggressive, getting on the front foot and opening plenty of seams for the running backs.
Kubiak offenses have made stars out of far lesser backs than Rice and Pierce with this kind of line play. If this is a sign of what's to come in 2014, the Ravens' rushing attack could go from one of the worst to one of the best in one offseason.
Picking Up Speed
If anything, the news got better for the Ravens when the offenses put in their second-stringers.
Backup quarterback Tyrod Taylor gave the 49ers fits with his mobility, making plays with both his arm and his feet. Taylor finished the half going 7-of-10 for 58 yards, per NFL.com, and finished with 59 yards on five scrambles. Increased pressure from the 49ers in the second half affected his final passing numbers (13-of-21 for 116 yards, one touchdown and one interception), but there's no question Taylor outperformed the second-string signal-caller on the other squad.
49ers backup quarterback Blaine Gabbert had a disastrous first showing, going just 3-of-11 for a meager 20 yards, no touchdowns and an interception.
The repeated turnovers and stalled drives from the 49ers gave journeyman tailback Justin Forsett and fourth-round rookie pick Lorenzo Taliaferro plenty of reps, and they made the most of them. Forsett had seven carries for 29 yards and added a 13-yard reception. Taliaferro took over in the second half and rumbled through the 49ers for 71 yards on 13 attempts, with much of that yardage coming after first contact.
All told, the Ravens racked up a massive 237 rushing yards on 48 carries. At 4.94 yards per carry, that's the dominant ground game Flacco and the Ravens never had in 2013—and it should put the rest of the AFC on notice.
Defensively, first-round rookie C.J. Mosley looked as powerful as advertised, racking up three solo tackles, two assists and a sack. Second-rounder Timmy Jernigan looked disruptive at times in the second half, despite not being officially credited with a tackle.
Pumping the Brakes
It's hard not to be excited about taking on one of the best, deepest teams in the NFL and beating it 23-3. As dire as the 49ers' depth at quarterback and nose tackle were revealed to be, though, the Ravens have some points to improve on.
Taylor made some electrifying plays, but he put himself in harm's way quite a bit and broke down under pressure. Coming into his third season—new system or no—the No. 2 quarterback should look more comfortable executing the offense than Taylor did. Worse, when a backup's style is so wildly different than the starter's, it can make switching between the two difficult.
Flacco didn't miss a game in the first six seasons of his career, but as the Indianapolis Colts found out in 2011 when ironman Peyton Manning unexpectedly missed the entire season, there's a first time for everything.
Defensively, the Ravens didn't get much of a test. Their defensive line dominated the 49ers' young guard-center pair of Joe Looney and Daniel Kilgore, as well as new swing tackle Jonathan Martin. However, the Ravens struggled to contain rookie running back Carlos Hyde.
The secondary feasted on the 49ers pass attack, but that was more due to the implosion of Gabbert than great play by the defense.
Starter Colin Kaepernick completed the only pass he threw for 17 yards, and third-stringer Josh Johnson looked very effective, going 6-of-8 passing for 63 yards and a 15-yard scramble. If Johnson hadn't fumbled away a snap, he could have done even more damage to the Ravens reserves.
All told, this was a fantastic first outing for the Ravens offense. In one drive, we saw more life, tempo, big plays and dominant running than during long stretches of the 2013 season.
If Kubiak's truly reconstructed the one-cut power-running game that served him so well in Houston and in Denver, the Ravens' stable of dominant runners will keep opposing defenses on their heels deep into games.
Furthermore, if he has Flacco making good decisions quickly and accurately finding dangerous receivers in the middle of the field, the Ravens offense could be one of the better units in the AFC—and the combination of both units playing up to the potential of their talent would make them a serious contender.
Nobody hands out championship rings for one preseason win, but Flacco, Kubiak, John Harbaugh and the Ravens made this debut outing as exciting as they get.