When the Baltimore Ravens hired new head coach John Harbaugh, they envisioned he would work closely with the special teams given his position as the special teams coach of the Philadelphia Eagles from 1998 thru 2006. What they Ravens’ officials did not expect was that the special teams play would be the strongest point of their team so far in 2008. The latest loss to the St. Louis Rams on Saturday night again displayed the ineptitude of the Ravens’ offensive and defensive units.
Harbaugh was smart to hire Jerry Rosburg as his special teams coordinator to oversee the kicking game but little did Rosburg realize that his unit would be the mainstay of the team. One of the most consistent parts of the Ravens’ games to date has been returner Yamon Figurs. Whether returning kickoffs or punts, he put the offense initially in great field position by returning his first kickoff 37 yards. Additionally, SS Tom Zbikowski partially blocked a punt that went out of bounds on the Rams’ 20-yard line which eventually led to a PK Matt Stover 22-yard field goal.
The Ravens’ offense had four starters who did not play against the Rams: QB Troy Smith, TE Todd Heap, RB Willis McGahee and OT Jared Gaither; while the Ravens’ defense was also without four starters: CB Chris McAlister, DT Kelly Gregg, FS Ed Reed and DT Haloti Ngata.
Offensively, Smith was a game-time scratch due to a stomach virus that forced rookie QB Joe Flacco to make his first NFL start since QB Kyle Boller’s shoulder was not 100%. Flacco played the entire game completing 18 of 37 passes for 152 yards, one touchdown, no interceptions and two sacks for a 68.8 QB rating after going 4 for 13 for 33 yards and a 40.2 QB rating in the first-half. His ability to move around in the pocket enabled him to complete all four passes for 61 yards to veteran wide receiver Derrick Mason, on a seven-play, 75-yard touchdown drive culminating in a 15-yard touchdown pass to Mason, the first touchdown pass this preseason for any of the three Ravens QBs.
Further, the Ravens employed a jumbo backfield on occasion when they paired FB Le’Ron McClain with newly signed FB Lorenzo Neal, cut by the San Diego Chargers. McClain lined up as the RB and had a team high 24 yards on 4 carries in the first-half and generally showed ball-carrying ability as a RB in addition to his blocking and pass-catching duties as a FB.
Defensively, for the second straight game as starters reserve CBs Corey Ivy and Frank Walker performed poorly. They were severely tested by Rams QB Marc Bulger who completed 18 of 25 passes for 182 yards,two touchdowns, and no interceptions for a 119.1 QB rating, going 15 of 19 passes in the first-half alone, as the Ravens allowed 411 yards of total offense.
On a positive note, SS Zbikowski further enhanced his night’s work when he intercepted a reserve Rams QB Bruce Gradkowski pass and returned it 21 yards into Rams’ territory. Both Zbikowski and fellow rookie safety Haruki Nakamura have made plays defensively this preseason for the Ravens under the watchful eye of veteran SS Jim Leonhard who has started every game this preseason in place of Ed Reed. Unlike the CBs, the Ravens safeties have generally comported themselves admireably for the third consecutive game.
The QB competition continues another week with the next stop in this epic struggle on Thursday with the Atlanta Falcons game. Best guess is that Troy Smith will start in Atlanta if healthy and barring a complete collapse on his part in that game he will then be named to start the season at home the next week against the Cincinnati Bengals. Assuming no injuries, Joe Flacco’s best chance to start will not occur until the bye week 10 on the NFL schedule if he starts a regular season game in 2008 at all.