What the hell just happened during the first preseason game of the year? The Ravens beat the 49ers on every possible front Thursday evening, that's what just happened.
All right, so it's preseason and preseason doesn't really matter. But we can take a few things away from this game.
The 49ers are still good, but the Ravens are better
The 49ers didn't suddenly become a bad team and the Ravens didn't suddenly become a great team. But this definitely isn't the same Ravens team from last season. The defense did well to shut down a hard running team all night long and took away their solid receiving corps. On offense, the Ravens marched down the field with aggression and put it in the end zone like the Ravens of the past ... with a run right up the gut.
Kubiak's scheme is working
Like I covered in my article before the game, Kubiak isn't going to toss out everything with his scheme as all teams keep it vanilla during the preseason. But you got to see a quickened pace, a much improved offensive line actually run a successful zone blocking scheme like it should be run, running backs hit the hole with authority and speed as well as receivers find holes in the defense and turn it upfield for extra yardage. I'm not sure what more you could have asked for out of a first series and out of the first string offense.
Rice is back
Ray Rice, after his terrible offseason, saw his first action and he looked much improved. Smaller, sleeker, and with much more power and quickness than he displayed last year; it looks like the Ravens workhorse is back. It is to be expected that after the offseason troubles, Rice would be trying to make a positive name for himself, and what I saw was a man play the game with heart, which is how he became the starter in the first place. If Rice can keep this up all season long the Ravens will do extremely well.
Backup running backs might not be set in stone yet
Both Justin Forsett and Bernard Pierce put the ball on the ground Thursday night. While Pierce's fumble was more of a great hit at the right spot, he can't afford to put the ball down at all, and the same goes for Forsett's less excusable fumble. Both backs have a chance to cement themselves as main players on this team, but with Rice's emergence again as well as them both dropping the rock, their spot on the depth chart might not be as solid as they would think. Forsett was blown up in the first half while "attempting" (I guess we'll call him getting run over an "attempt") to pass block leading to Tyrod Taylor not having anywhere to go and seeing the first sack of the night. Meanwhile rookie Lorenzo Taliaferro shredded the 49ers defense by bouncing off arm tackles and shoulders leading the team with 13 carries and 71 yards for his effort. That puts him at nearly 5.5 yards per carry on the night. Even though it was against third-stringers, Taliaferro has rightfully earned a bump up in the next preseason game to prove himself against slightly better competition. Another performance like that and Forsett might be third on the depth chart with Pierce's grasp on the second spot becoming more tenuous as time goes on.
Offensive line looked crisp
The offensive line bounced back in a major way during the first series. Kubiak kept new addition, Owen Daniels in to assist with Ricky Wagner on the right side, but ultimately wasn't needed. The line as a whole surged forward on rushing plays and in one instance where the Ravens needed a yard for the first down, the whole offensive line ran that single yard for the team allowing Bernard Pierce to get two yards and keep a drive alive. While the backups didn't perform quite as well as the first team, they still held their own against one of the top defenses in the league known for getting penetration. It was a success all around for that squad and three more games will allow them to get even better.
Defensive line is shaping up to be one of the best in the league
No that isn't a joke. Most people think of teams like the Rams, Panthers or Lions (oh my!); but I saw a starting defensive line that was able to get pressure and get in the backfield. Then as the game wore on, I saw rotational players continue that trend and even some no-name guys got in on the fun. The strength of this defensive line that makes it better than the other top lines is the sheer depth the Ravens have. With Brent Urban out for the season with a knee injury, the defensive line cup runneth over even still and that will allow guys like Haloti Ngata to stay healthy and fresh for longer, meaning that the defensive line can perform well into the playoffs. That type of performance is what analysts talk about in February as a team is throwing a parade.
Tyrod Taylor is on the way out
Yeah, the Ravens gave him pretty much every snap in the first preseason game, but I saw a guy that relied almost exclusively on his legs. Now there were times that it worked for him, but more often than not, Taylor missed open receivers, easy reads and was off target leading to an abysmal interception and a mediocre completion percentage making him look like an AFL reject more than a capable quarterback. Rookie quarterback Keith Wenning didn't get any meaningful snaps but I take that more as a serious competition for Taylor than an endorsement. The Ravens wanted to see Taylor start off the game decently and improve as he got settled and as the competition got a little less talented. The only problem is that he started off terribly, riding his legs and the rushing attack; only to get marginally better until right at the very end of the game when he was playing against the third string and roster bubble players. I expect Wenning to get a majority of the work next game and if he plays even a little better than Taylor, the competition will swing wildly in his favor.
The last receiver battle is going to be interesting
Deonte Thompson yet again shows absolutely no awareness to go with his extraordinary speed. Targeted a bunch of times, Thompson spent more time out of bounds than anywhere else Thursday night, only catching a single pass. Meanwhile his greatest competition seems to be in Kamar Aiken and Jeremy Butler, both players that were targeted less and ended with more catches, with Butler scoring the only receiving touchdown of the game. Thompson might be a bit of a fan favorite, but David Reed was at one point too, and he was wearing red and gold Thursday evening (and outperformed Thompson for that matter).
Tucker is automatic
So the NFL decided to change the extra point and Tucker isn't fazed at all. A returner decides to grab Tucker's facemask and drag him down to the ground and Tucker just makes the tackle and gets the flag. It's just preseason, but Tucker nails a 55-yard field goal like it was the AFC Championship game and nailed it so perfectly, it would have been good from 65 and maybe even 70 yards out. Tucker is earning that fat payday and punching his man card at the same time.
Of course, this is all preseason and things change. However, what I saw from the Ravens on Thursday was a well oiled machine that is already clicking and looking to make a name for itself. Three more games and then diving into the regular season only gives them more time to work at getting better and highlighting impact players.