Week 3 of preseason is as serious as it gets before we kickoff for real in a fortnight, and the host Baltimore Ravens brought their A-game to this one. The Ravens set the tempo and the tone throughout this game. They got off to the better start, they kept the pace up throughout and they dictated when the game was dead, taking their starters out when their work was done while the Jaguars still had plenty to do.
On a streak of four consecutive playoff campaigns, the Ravens came as close as you can come to a trip to the Super Bowl, without actually making it, earlier this year. In spite of some key personnel losses to free agency and injury, the Ravens are still motivated to move forward this season and the offense looked to show signs that it was ready to play a more prominent role in 2012.
Jacksonville also showed signs of improvement, but with the starters playing there was a clear gulf in class between the two squads and there was to be no repeat of the upset victory the Jaguars inflicted on the Ravens last season. The result may not count but there is still plenty to learn from this game.
Jacksonville Jaguars – Three Things of Note
1) Gabbert Showing Signs of Growth
After what can only be described as an awful rookie season, Blaine Gabbert has definitely shown signs of improvement this preseason and the trend continued this week. There was more poise in the pocket, more accuracy and, in the shape of rookie Justin Blackmon, the potential go-to receiver that he lacked last season. He is far from the finished article but things don’t look to be moving so quickly for him that he can’t develop in the short term. There were still some issues with his pocket presence, as he occasionally walked into pressure and hits, and there were some off target throws as well. However, what is most important, particularly to maximize the effect of the rookie Blackmon, is that there were a number of throws in the correct location to lead receivers. If Gabbert is to get the most from Blackmon he needs to locate passes so that his rookie receiver can get yardage after the catch. He showed this on a number of throws, in particular a pass to an out route that led Blackmon away from the coverage of Ed Reed and allowed him to beat the Ravens’ future Hall of Famer up the sideline. You can’t escape the fact that the Jaguars only put up three points against the Ravens starters and went three-and-out twice, but there were clear signs of progress for Gabbert under the tutelage of Mike Mularkey and Greg Olson.
2) Jennings Ready to Shoulder the Load
There has been much comment about the absence of Maurice Jones-Drew from the Jaguars’ training camp, and while he certainly was a valuable part of the Jaguars’ offense last season, and before, he does not hold the same indispensable value moving forward. The Jaguars were robbed of their number two back last season when Rashad Jennings was lost to a season-ending knee injury almost exactly a year ago. The former seventh-round pick out of Liberty is back, healthy and looks to be ready to roll in whatever capacity the Jaguars need from him. While he may not be of the same caliber as Jones-Drew, he showed in this game that when his offensive line presents him with the opportunity he can make the cuts to beat defenders and get into space while also showing the leg drive to maximize yardage on every single carry. Pass protection is also a key feature of Jones-Drew’s game and Jennings’ blitz pick up on the first offensive snap of the game showed that he too is capable in that regard. He may not be able to carry the offense as Jones-Drew can, but if Jones-Drew remains absent and the passing game takes a step forward Jennings can certainly be a contributor for this offense.
3) Alualu Invisible
Back in the 2010 NFL Draft many onlookers perceived the Jaguars’ selection of Tyson Alualu with the tenth overall pick to be a reach and, in spite of a promising start to his rookie season, he has done little to suggest he will ever live up to that lofty draft status. Once again this week Alualu was almost a complete non-factor for the Jaguars, only contributing a couple of stops in the running game while the rest of the time he was easily contained by the Ravens’ offensive line. Alualu has played more than 800 snaps in each of his first two seasons but was rotated while the starters were on the field drive by drive and a new tactic may be in order this season for the Jaguars to try and get more from a former top-ten pick. He was neutralized as a pass rusher by the Ravens’ up-tempo passing attack and never really looked threatening to the offensive line, even failing to capitalize on a miscommunication on one pass rush.
Baltimore Ravens – Three Things of Note
1) Up-Tempo Flacco
The Ravens ran a noticeably more up-tempo and aggressive offense in this game, and Joe Flacco led the offense with a promising response to this style of play calling. He got off to a strong start by hitting Billy Bajema over the middle with his first throw, before finding Anquan Boldin on the left sideline, beating the coverage of William Middleton. There were reminders of the ‘bad’ Joe that we saw for much of last season–including forcing a pass to Boldin down the seam that might have been picked in the end zone, and an awful decision to try and throw while being swarmed in the pocket that resulted in a fumble–but for the most part this was ‘good’ Joe. In particular, Flacco looked to be building a rapport with Torrey Smith who made full use of his vertical threat against the Jags’ secondary. Smith’s first target was a deep sideline route on which they didn’t connect, but Smith was behind LCB Rashean Mathis. Flacco and Smith built on this missed opportunity by connecting on a number of hitch and comeback routes as the Jags were clearly concerned by his ability to get behind the defense. If the Ravens stick with this up-tempo offense and Smith maintains his development of the route tree, then Flacco and the Ravens offense will take a step forward this season.
2) Oher Looking for Stability
Ever since his impressive rookie season at right tackle Michael Oher has struggled for stability and a solid baseline of performance. This preseason hasn’t offered him anymore stability as again he has been called upon to play left and right tackle, but he did look back toward his best this week, at least in isolation. There were still concerning plays particularly as a run blocker where he looked a little lost at times if he got into traffic, and he was badly beaten by Paul Posluszny to give up a tackle for a short gain. However, in pass protection he gave up very little to Jeremy Mincey and looked far more comfortable in that regard, benefiting from the Ravens’ up-tempo game. The Ravens desperately need Oher to extend this isolated strong performance in pass protection into a full season reminiscent of his rookie 2009 campaign.
3) Kruger on the Edge
With the loss of Terrell Suggs to injury (who knows when we’ll see him back) and Jarrett Johnson to San Diego, the Ravens’ defense on the edge is going to be tested by opposing offenses in 2012. In past seasons it has been an absolutely no go area, with both Suggs and Johnson terrific in run defense and Suggs a major threat as a pass rusher too. This is a tough act to follow for anyone and on the evidence of this game Paul Kruger isn’t ready to pick up the mantle. A step down is to be expected, and both in terms of the ferocity and consistency with which he defends the edge, Kruger is some way short of Suggs and Johnson. He lost contain on a 15-yard gain by Rashad Jennings, and on a consistent basis just didn’t look a threat to stone runs to the outside as the Ravens are so used to from their edge defenders. Perhaps more concerning was that Kruger was a complete non-factor in the passing game. Even when he was given a free run by a mix-up in pass protection early in the game, he was easily picked up by Montell Owens to allow Blaine Gabbert time to get rid of the ball. Kruger was a consistent contributor as a pass rusher opposite Suggs last season, the Ravens will hope this was a blip and that the former Utah Ute will pick up when the regular season rolls round.
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