Flacco makes case to be the starter

BALTIMORE -- Joe Flacco made a fairly convincing closing argument about his worthiness for the Baltimore Ravens' starting quarterback job, outplaying fellow rookie first-round draft pick Matt Ryan. Flacco displayed just enough encouraging potential and confidence that the big rookie may ultimately be awarded the position by default.

At a pivotal position where veterans Kyle Boller and Troy Smith have been stricken by injury and illness, Flacco's development may be accelerated due to their unavailability and his steady improvement.

During a nondescript 10-9 loss Thursday night to the Atlanta Falcons to conclude the preseason at M&T Bank Stadium, Flacco led one decent scoring drive and committed no turnovers for the third consecutive game.

Despite the solid outing, Ravens coach John Harbaugh said that he couldn't anoint Flacco as the regular-season starter due to the fluid medical situation involving Boller and Smith. The Ravens finished 1-3 in the preseason.

"I think Joe has made the case that he can go back there and compete for us as the opening-day starter," Harbaugh said. "Whether that's the best thing or where we're at, we'll have to see in the next three, four or five days. He's acquitted himself very well."

Before being replaced early in the second quarter by Casey Bramlet, Flacco completed 8 of 13 passes for 72 yards, no touchdowns and no interceptions for a 76.4 quarterback rating.

It was his second consecutive start after making a rough NFL debut against the New England Patriots.

Flacco has been more accurate and consistent than Smith, who is being hospitalized for at least the next two days at Union Memorial Hospital with a tonsil infection. He has the advantage of being healthier than Boller, who is out indefinitely with a serious shoulder injury.

"Even if we planned to name a starter, we couldn't right now," Harbaugh said. "We'll find out more about Kyle in the next couple of days. We don't know about Troy.

"He was starting to feel a little better, but he couldn't play. We'll see what the next few days bring."

A former Delaware star, Flacco connected with wide receiver Demetrius Williams for a 22-yard strike in stride down to the Falcons' 35-yard line. It was Williams' first game this month since being activated from the physically unable to perform list as he has been hampered by a left Achilles' tendon injury.

Three plays after rookie running back Ray Rice's 23-yard scamper up the left sideline, Flacco nearly hit Williams on a fade route in the corner of the end zone. However, Williams stumbled and Flacco's pass glanced off his fingertips as Baltimore settled for a 25-yard Matt Stover field goal.

Flacco went 3 for 4 for 40 yards on the drive.

When asked if it would be better for him to learn on the sidelines rather than start immediately, Flacco replied: "How are you goin g to learn when you're sitting? I think the best way to learn is to go out there and experience it. You learn a lot of different ways, but, for me, the best way to learn is to go out there and experience it for yourself and learn through your own experiences."

In the first half alone, Baltimore was 0 for 3 in red-zone efficiency and only converted 2 of 7 third-down opportunities.

The Ravens wound up doing all their scoring on three Stover field goals.

"Joe was solid and threw the ball well," offensive coordinator Cam Cameron said. "That was good to see. It is disappointing not to close drives. I said it before this preseason: We need to score touchdowns."

Flacco had plenty of time to throw and wasn't sacked after being sacked six times in the previous three preseason contests.

He played much better than Ryan, the third overall pick of the draft who completed just 2 of 7 passes for 17 yards.

"They were incredible," Flacco said of the offensive line. "I felt like I was standing back there and nobody was within 10 yards of me.

"I felt ridiculously protected. The guys also did a really good job in the run game. They looked outstanding to me."

After that score, Flacco left the game and took his place on the sideline next to Boller, whose severely injured throwing shoulder has endangered his season. It's unclear if Boller will eventually need to have surgery, but nothing has been scheduled yet.

"Joe played well," Harbaugh said. "He was in control, he played faster and he was mostly on target. He keeps making progress."

Smith was too sick to attend the game due a recu rring fever and has lost roughly 13 pounds since incurring an illness that has affected the former Heisman Trophy winner's chances to seize the starting job.

Now, the Ravens have to decide whether to go with Flacco or Smith, if he recovers in time, as the starter in a Sept. 7 season-opener against the Cincinnati Bengals.

"It certainly wasn't our ideal to have a quarterback that very well could have been our starter miss all that time," Harbaugh said of Smith. "So, we'll have to factor that into the equation as we go forward. By the same token, he's had a lot of reps. He knows our offense."

Bramlet, whose odyssey to Baltimore included catching a red-eye flight Wednesday night after being cut by the San Diego Chargers and claimed off waivers by the Ravens and rushing through a walk-through in a hotel ballroom, played the majority of the game despite not having ever practiced with the team.

Familiar with Cameron's system after playing for him last year with the Miami Dolphins during a 1-15 season, Bramlet completed 7 of 21 passes for 100 yards and two interceptions.

Among the players on the bubble of making the final major roster cut in two days that made a strong impression: linebackers Gary Stills (four tackles) and Jameel McClain (one sack) and rookie running back Allen Patrick (13 rushes for 30 yards, two receptions for 35 yards).

McClain is in the running for a roster spot, if not the practice squad, and Patrick may fit into the Ravens' practice squad plans if he doesn't claim one of the final roster spots. Stills could be a victim of a numbers game as the Ravens have several linebackers and acquired sp ecial-teams ace Brendon Ayanbadejo during free agency.

Competing for the chance to start at free safety with Ed Reed sidelined with a shoulder injury, safety Jim Leonhard intercepted a pass with another interception nullified due to a penalty. After allowing a 20-yard Brian Finneran touchdown catch on a feeble tackle attempt, Leonhard had a strong second half.

Meanwhile, several players made their preseason debuts after nursing injuries throughout this month, including Williams and defensive tackle Haloti Ngata. Tight end Todd Heap made a limited appearance.

Offensive tackle Jared Gaither started at left tackle after returning this week from a right high-ankle sprain.

Gaither's presence marked the first time the entire Ravens' starting offensive line has played in a game together this year.

"It felt great being out there because it's been so long since I've had live action in a game, over seven months," Gaither said. "It felt good to work the kinks out. It was important for our starting offensive line to go out there together and get some valuable time before next week's opener.

"The ankle feels great. It felt great while I was playing a nd it feels great right now. It was a big step in my progress."

Gaither is the successor to All-Pro left tackle Jonathan Ogden, who retired in June. The 6-foot-9, 330-pound former University of Maryland player has vast athletic potential, but has been dogged by questions about his work ethic and maturity.

Ngata played briefly in the first quarter, testing out his knee for the first time since spraining his right medial collateral ligament.

"My knee felt great, I was able to work some of that rust off," Ngata said. "I didn't feel any little kinks.=2 0Next week, I'll come back and be at full strength.

"I don't have any pain or any swelling. Hopefully, it'll stay like that throughout the season."

The Ravens' defense was missing five starters, including Reed, cornerbacks Chris McAlister and Samari Rolle, nose guard Kelly Gregg and middle linebacker Ray Lewis. Of those players, only Lewis and Rolle were just being rested and aren't question marks for the launch of the regular season.

"We need to get all of our starters back out there on the field, guys like Kelly Gregg and Ed Reed, all of those important pieces to our defense," Ngata said. "If we get everybody back healthy, we have a chance to do some great things this year."

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


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