One of the most interesting things about preseason is that what you take away from a game is very much open to interpretation. The last thing that registers is the scoreline but your overall sense of it, be it positive or negative, can be tremendously varied. Different people at every level of football — from the fan to the head coach to the owner — will have a different check list of things they want to see from each game, and from the series of games as a whole.
Few games will better illustrate that paradigm than the Carolina Panthers’ visit to Baltimore to face off with the defending champion Ravens, where optimistic and pessimistic fans of both teams found their fill. For the Ravens, their opening drive was exactly what they were striving for last week against the Falcons. A drive with tempo, intensity, consistent pick-ups down to down and they capped it off with a walk-in touchdown. However, they followed that up with a trio of turnovers that resulted in defensive touchdowns for the Panthers — plays sure to sap the confidence and belief of fans and players alike. Meanwhile, the defense was a relatively consistent pulse of performance to offset the Jekyll-and-Hyde display for the offense.
For the Panthers, they saw victory based off opportunistic, play-making defense (led by their middle linebacker and the continuing emergence of a pair of young defensive tackles) to offer hope for a real interior presence for the first time in years. The pessimistic Panthers fan will temper that by saying that without those opportunistic plays the offense didn’t show enough to fill you with confidence.
Preseason is what you take away from it. Here’s what I’ve taken away from Carolina’s visit to Baltimore
Carolina – Three Performances of Note
A Star in the Making
A week after giving the best guard in the league (Evan Mathis) a hard time in fits and starts during his second preseason display, Star Lotulelei put in a show (+4.6) against the Ravens to really get Carolina fans excited. Carolina has been without a real presence at defensive tackle for a long time, they’re highest-graded DT in the PFF era (2008 onward) was Ma’ake Kemoeatu (+10.5) in 2008, and though it has been an issue, they’ve never properly addressed it until this draft.
By taking Lotulelei in the first round and Kawann Short (+1.7) in the second, they made a statement of intent that things needed to change, and the first-rounder is starting to find his feet in preseason. Working principally against starting left guard Kelechi Osemele (last seen dismantling Justin Smith in the Super Bowl) the Panthers’ first-round selection consistently got a convincing upper hand. A hurry and a sack were good returns in the passing game, but it was in the run game where he proved to be a one-man wrecking crew. With two tackles for loss, two other stops, and disruptions beyond taking the ballcarrier down, this display offered plenty to get excited about. Can he carry this sort of play forward when it counts?
Troubles Upfront Spread Through the Offense
For as much as the playmaking of the defense and special teams will have encouraged Carolina fans, the offense was stuck in neutral for much of the night. The malaise started up front where — aside from Ryan Kalil (+0.4) in the middle of the line — every starting lineman graded -1.5 or worse. On the left side, Jordan Gross and Amini Silatolu both earned that grade but constructed it differently. Gross struggled badly with his run blocking (-2.5) being troubled by a series of defenders starting with Arthur Jones and running all the way through to Terrell Suggs and John Simon. To his inside, Silatolu surrendered two pressures (1 hit, 1 hurry) on only nine pass blocks. The bigger problems, however, came on the other side where Garry Williams (-2.3) and Byron Bell (-4.0) struggled badly in pass protection. These struggles up front led to issues for the Panthers’ skill position players, with Cam Newton facing pressure on 10 of his 24 drop-backs and, on their 22 designed runs, the Carolina offensive line only afforded their runners 1.4 yards per carry before contact.
Kuechly Marks his Territory
Last season Luke Kuechly drew plenty of plaudits based around his nose for the ballcarrier, but he was far from the finished article, showing inconsistency at times in pass coverage. Last night, though, was a good night for Kuechly in coverage, which when combined with three stops in run defense will all add up to a performance (+3.7) that will rightly pull in plenty of positive press. After an early blip losing track of Visanthe Shiancoe on the Ravens’ opening drive, it was all positive, as he feasted on some extremely optimistic passing from Joe Flacco. Early in the second quarter he had tight coverage on Dallas Clark, bracketing him with Captain Munnerlyn, and drove to the inside shoulder and broke up the short pass. He then emphasized his control of the short area later in the second by breaking up a pass that led to an interception (nullified by what I’ll call a cautious personal foul flag from the officiating crew), before finally booting the Ravens off the field with an interception of his own on another ill-advised short throw from Flacco.
This disparity in where teams must look to challenge Kuechly and the Panthers’ pass defense over the middle is little better illustrated than Flacco’s passing stats. On short passes (0-9 yards downfield) Flacco went 5-of-8 for 31 yards and two interceptions as Kuechly helped shut that region down. Meanwhile, on intermediate throws (10-19 yards), Flacco found some joy going 3-of-4 for 50 yards and a touchdown. As with many linebackers, but particularly Kuechly at this early stage in his career, you must challenge in behind him.
Baltimore – Three Performances of Note
Start as You Mean to Go On
While the subsequent turnovers were real concern for the Ravens, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to ask fans to re-focus a little on the first drive their offense executed. If you view preseason as a check list of things to see as much as the full picture, then that opening drive was a big tick on the team’s preseason to-do’s. After a defensive three-and-out, the offense marched the field picking up 69 yards on nine plays, culminating with a walk-in touchdown for Ray Rice.
On his very first play this preseason Marshal Yanda (+2.6) got things underway with a punishing block on former Raven Dwan Edwards, to help clear a path for 13-yard gain by Rice — as a drive starter that’s not bad going. Fast forward through a third-down conversion by Brandon Stokley (something the Ravens will need to hear announcers call a lot this season) and a 14-yard pick up by Visanthe Shiancoe and you end up with the Ravens at the 1-yard line. The Ravens needed only one attempt from the goal line as Bryant McKinnie cleared down Sione Fua to open a big gap for Vonta Leach, and Yanda to move both Kuechly and A.J. Klein, giving Rice that simple score. While you’d be far happier to have built from that starting point, it has to be some comfort that the Ravens have this sort of execution in their locker.
Questions to Answer or Keeping his Powder Dry?
This has been a perplexing preseason for Joe Flacco and the Ravens’ passing game. This is a team that from the profile of the quarterback and the type of receiver atop the depth chart is built around the deep passing game, but the Ravens have shown little inclination to go deep early on. Flacco has sent only two of his 42 preseason targets more than 20 yards downfield — and, though he has an extra game on almost every other QB, that is the lowest mark in preseason. So, in that sense it’s clear Flacco and the Ravens are keeping their powder dry, because when it matters, there is no way the Ravens are going to be shy of sending the ball deep.
The team, however, would surely have hoped Flacco’s short passing would have shown more strides than his preseason displays suggest. Through his three games Flacco has thrown three interceptions on short passes and only a 77-yard scoring strike to a wide open Torrey Smith skews his short passing numbers to any sort of a favorable level. Without that give-away pass from Atlanta, Flacco would be 18-of-25 for 149 yards with three interceptions on short passes, with those struggles emphasized by some awful decision making on short throws last night. The Ravens will hope that airing the ball out more will open things up underneath.
A Defense Ready to Start a New Era
One of, if not the, biggest questions for the Ravens this offseason has been how this defense goes again without the presence of long-time leaders and legends Ray Lewis and Ed Reed calling the shots. Well, on the evidence of preseason to this point, and particularly last night against Carolina, it carries on where it left off, but without the fanfare and media glare.
To a man, the Ravens’ defense put in solid or strong displays with only two (Marc Anthony and Meshak Williams) of their 30 defenders who stepped on the field last night earning a grade below -1.0 overall. Terrell Suggs (+3.6) got through 25 snaps (taking his preseason total to 28) collecting a pair of hurries and a stop in run defense. Arthur Jones (+2.7) and Courtney Upshaw (+1.9) only served to emphasize how strong the Ravens’ run defense is likely to be on the edge this season and, while the focus at inside linebacker has been on Daryl Smith, Josh Bynes and Arthur Brown, it was Albert McLellan (+4.3) who proved just how spoiled for choice the Ravens are in terms of finding the right blend to replace their former leader. Do the Ravens have two dead-cert future Hall of Famers starting on defense anymore? No. But don’t think that means this defense is going to be a walkover.
– Armond Smith will not have impressed the Panthers’ coaching staff with his contribution last night. After a solid 10-yard carry off the edge, he saw fit to kick Albert McLellan and get himself ejected from the game, after one snap. Not the best way to earn a job.
– Rookie safety Matt Elam paced the Ravens with 43 snaps, his most of the preseason so far, and earned a positive grade overall (+0.7), in run defense (+0.7) and in coverage (+0.4) for the third time in preseason. Only a silly nudge on Greg Olsen that drew a soft flag from the officials blotted his copybook.
– On defense, Carolina missed a dozen tackles which matched their total for their first two preseason games combined.
PFF Game Ball
For not only giving Panthers fans hope of a presence in front of Luke Kuechly but also for taking apart the man who took our Super Bowl game ball, this award can go to Star Lotulelei.
Follow Ben on Twitter @PFF_Ben