QB battle undecided as Ravens fall

BALTIMORE -- Troy Smith didn't seize control in the Baltimore Ravens' quarterback duel, nor did he relinquish his toehold in a competition that remains unresolved. Instead of staking an unquestioned claim on the job, Smith was upstaged by the electrifying runs of rookie running back Ray Rice during a 23-15 loss to the Minnesota Vikings on Saturday night at M&T Bank Stadium.

Overall, it was a case of an injury-riddled squad that looked shaky and suspect.

At this point, there is no formally defined pecking order in the quarterback derby between Smith and former starter Kyle Boller. Afterward, Ravens coach John Harbaugh indicated that he hasn't decided yet who will start the third preseason game next week against the St. Louis Rams.

"It's hard to say what kind of separation there was or wasn't," Harbaugh said. "I know coaches say that all=2 0the time, and everybody goes, 'You got to look at the tape and then worry about making decisions.'

"I think they had some good moments. I think they had some not-so good moments and opportunities to learn. In a game like this, I think both of them showed that they could move the football in this league."

A former Heisman Trophy winner, Smith had a few positive moments as he displayed his trademark elusiveness.

However, he completed just 3 of 5 passes for 25 yards and an interception and was sacked twice by Vikings blue-chip defensive end Jared Allen for a 33.3 quarterback rating.

"It was all right, it can definitely get better," Smith said. "There are some areas on the field where my passing game can get better."

The lone interception Smith threw was an off-target slant delivered slightly behind wide receiver Mark Clayton that glanced off him and into the waiting hands of veteran Vikings safety Darren Sharper.

The turnover marred an otherwise-clean showing by the first-string offense. Smith was also a split-second late on a deep sideline throw to wide receiver Yamon Figurs as Sharper closed on the late pass and unloaded on Figurs to break up the play.

"It was totally my fault," Smith said of the interception. "I'm not trying to say I was greedy, but I was just trying to get a guy another play and I should have went elsewhere."

Plus, the former Ohio State star was crushed by Allen when left offensive tackle Chad Slaughter was overwhelmed on a classic bull-rush by Allen.

"We have to help the quarterback move," Harbaugh said. "If the ball is in your catching zone, you have to catch it. Troy didn't get a lot of snaps in the first half, but he handled things well and his escapability is good. You were able to see that."

Smith's mobility is clearly superior to the Ravens' other quarterbacks. He rushed for 35 yards on three carries, including an 18-yard sprint for a first down.

"We didn't protect the quarterback the way we have to," offensive coordinator Cam Cameron said. "Troy did make some plays with his legs. He has a knack for that."

Mostly, though, Smith was relegated to handing off to Rice as he dashed away from the Vikings' pursuit for 71 yards and a touchdown on seven carries in the first half.

Starting in place of injured running back Willis McGahee after he recently underwent arthroscopic left knee surgery, the former Rutgers star broke free for a 42-yard sideline burst behind crushing blocks from guards Marshal Yanda and Ben Grubbs and center Jason Brown.

"It was designed to move the linebackers, and my coach tells me all the time, 'You've got to move your linebackers in order to score or cut back and hit it the way I did,'" Rice said. "I think they had a bust in the defense, but my being able to move the linebackers is all about timing. When you get in that huddle, you're the starter and you've got to play like you're the starter."

Harbaugh emphasized that there is no running back controversy despite Rice excelling against the NFL's top-ranked run defense from a year ago.

"When Willis is healthy and ready to go, he's our starter, but both those guys will play," Harbaugh said. "But he played like a starter, if that's what you're asking. No question about it."

Smith reeled off a 10-yard scramble toward the right sideline to position Rice for a game-tying score during the first quarter.

Darting behind offensive tackle Chad Slaughter and tight end Adam Bergen, Rice busted into the end zone on a six-yard touchdown run.

"We ran the ball well early in the game," Cameron said. "Ray found a little rhythm and the line did a nice job."

That score tied the game after the Ravens seemed to have a communications breakdown in the secondary during the Vikings' opening drive.

Even before Vikings quarterback Tavaris Jackson's 23-yard touchdown pass settled into the hands of Vikings wide receiver Martin Nance, cornerback Fabian Washington began pointing toward safety Dawan Landry after being beaten on the play.

"Secondary-wise, we just need to focus on our communication," Landry said. "We gave them two touchdowns, one in the first quarter on miscommunication, and in the second quarter with miscommunication."

With six starters sidelined on defense due to injuries, including cornerbacks Chris McAlister and Samari Rolle and free safety Ed Reed, the defense looked disjointed.

They allowed 104 passing yards in the first quarter compared to the Ravens' seven on a waggle pass from Smith to Bergen.

"That wasn't Ravens defense," defensive coordinator Rex Ryan said. "Our communication from the coaches and on the field wasn't what it should be. You can put that on me. We didn't contain the quarterback, and that can't happen."

Jackson completed 7 of 11 passes for 82 yards and one touchdown pass.

He also eluded the Ravens' pass rush with his quick feet bef ore leaving the game with a minor right knee injury after an open-field hit from outside linebacker Antwan Barnes.

"We didn't stop them and a lot of that came from Jackson scrambling," Harbaugh said.

The Vikings repeatedly targeted new cornerback Frank Walker, who struggled to stay with his man and locate the football in the air.

Gus Frerotte replaced Jackson and lobbed a 32-yard pass behind Walker to Nance in the second quarter. Walker rebounded for a few alert pass deflections.

Five plays later, Frerotte was able to easily find Robert Ferguson in the corner of the end zone several steps ahead of cornerback Corey Ivy for a five-yard touchdown pass and a 17-7 advantage.

"We gave them too many plays," Ryan said. "We didn't close. If you get near the quarterback, you have to make the play. We didn't do that."

Meanwhile, Boller replaced Smith in the second half and completed 8 of 12 passes for 40 yards. He averaged just five yards per completion, though.

He repeated his tendency for miscues when he forced a pass intended for wide receiver Justin Harper and was intercepted by defensive back Brandon Sumrall on a one-handed catch.

It was Boller's third turnover of the preseason after losing a fumble and throwing an interception as he started in a 16-15 victory over the New England Patriots.

Boller endured a devastating hit from defensive tackle Letroy Guion on a look-out block from rookie offensive tackle Oniel Cousins. Boller fumbled, but it was recovered. The sack shook up Boller, but he gamely got up and returned to the huddle.

The Ravens capped the scoring with a 22-yard interception return for a touchdown from cornerback Derrick Martin. Fighting for a roster spot, Martin read rookie quarterback John David Booty's eyes and broke cleanly on the football.

"Maybe I made a play to get a job," Martin said. "I'm always thinking that. Anytime you make a play, there's always somebody watching. You know that you have to make the plays to stay out there, and I made some big plays. So, I'm hoping that lets me stay out here."

Rookie quarterback Joe Flacco completed 10 of 15 passes for 74 yards in the fourth quarter.

Flacco had the longest completion of the night for the Rav ens on a 14-yard throw to Matt Willis.

The first-round draft pick fumbled, but recovered it himself. He was intercepted by safety Husain Abdullah, but the turnover was overturned due to a defensive penalty.

In the two-minute drill, Flacco drove the Ravens to the Vikings' 13-yard line.

"I thought he did a nice job," Harbaugh said. "He threw a couple nice shots at the end of the game. Those were all things he was telling me in the locker room right now. That's the kind of guy he is. That kind of excites you as a coach."

Although Flacco played much better that his 0 for 3 outing against the Patriots where he fumbled and was sacked twice, Harbaugh made it clear that the competition is solely between Smith and Boller.

"I think Troy and Kyle, by the basis of practice so far have separated themselves from Joe in terms of being ready to line up and win a football game for us at this level," Harbaugh said. "Not to say it couldn't happen, but right now they've moved ahead."

The Ravens' quarterbacks finished a cumulative 21 of 32 for 139 yards, five sacks, no touchdowns and two interceptions for a 48.8 rating.

Overall, the Ravens were far from satisfied with their performance. And there were louder cheers for Olympic swimming hero Michael Phelps as he set a world record with his unprecedented eighth gold medal.

"It started off really well and then it got a little stagnant," Brown said. "We have to work on finishing. We have to continue doing those positive things and sustain that momentum."

Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.

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