Struggling in St. Louis: Ravens end preseason

ST. LOUIS -- Dannell Ellerbe strutted and showboated, pausing for a swaggering moment on the cusp of the St. Louis Rams' end zone as he returned a Keith Null interception. .

Then, the Baltimore Ravens' reserve inside linebacker leaned the football into the end zone with an exaggerated motion across the goal line to conclude a 57-yard touchdown in the second quarter that was greeted by loud boos from the Rams' small assemblage of diehards announced as 42,327 at Edward Jones Dome.

Seconds later, a clearly furious Ravens coach John Harbaugh was in Ellerbe's face mask spitting out words probably not fit for print as he chastised the second-year linebacker Ellerbe's touchdown off a pass deflected by cornerback Cary Williams was easily the Ravens' top individual showing during an ugly 27-21 loss to the Rams on Thursday night during a preseason finale defined by sloppiness from the Baltimore reserves.

Between quarterback Troy Smith's erratic showing and a poor decision by rookie punt returner Prince Miller, a series of bumbling, embarrassing miscues defined the Ravens' performance. "Anytime you don't win a football game, you're disappointed," Harbaugh said. "I am looking for positives and I'm proud of the way the guys fought. Now, we move on and the next thing is the regular season."

Ellerbe's athletic display was tempered by the extreme lack of discipline from Ellerbe. It obviously didn't help matters that Rams coach Steve Spagnuolo and offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur were colleagues of Harbaugh on the Philadelphia Eagles' staff.

"It was my first one," Ellerbe said. "I had a lot of stuff going through my mind. I didn't know what to do, but I always wanted to do that. He said I needed to do it with more class." Harbaugh confronted Ellerbe immediately and made it abundantly clear that he wouldn't tolerate a repeat performance. Ellerbe remained in the game, though, replacing Jason Phillips at middle linebacker on the next series.

"I loved the play we made on the interception, but I didn't like the finish to that because that's not who we are," Harbaugh said. "To his credit, the guy who did that realized it right away and said, ‘I can do better than that.'" Besides Ellerbe's individualistic display, it was a rough night for what amounted to the Ravens' junior varsity as they didn't play any starters. The Ravens (3-1) ended their seven-game preseason winning streak.

The Rams definitely didn't follow that memo about resting their top players heading into the regular season, playing several starters during the first half.

The Ravens used 41 players to the Rams' 75. Other than rushing for 56 yards and two touchdowns on seven carries, it was a tough night for the former Heisman Trophy winner from Ohio State.

He completed only 18 of 38 passes for 237 yards for the game with no touchdowns and two interceptions for a paltry 45.6 passer rating. He was sacked three times. Smith struggled with deflected passes behind a makeshift offensive line comprised of Ramon Harewood, Joe Reitz, Bryan Mattison, Stefan Rodgers and Devin Tyler.

Plus, his accuracy and judgment were suspect as he threw into coverage several times. "There are definitely some things as a quarterback I wish I could take back," Smith said. "It's been a while since I've had four quarters. I'm leaving this stadium with my head held high and I'm okay."

He was intercepted twice, including a pass intended for Demetrius Williams that was tipped and picked off at the Rams' one-yard line on fourth-and-goal to end the first half. Linebacker Chris Chamberlain nearly ran back the interception for a touchdown before running back Jalen Parmele chased him down at the Ravens' 12-yard line after an 83-yard return.

In the first half, Smith completed just 6 of 14 throws for 63 yards for a 26.8 passer rating. Smith is fighting to make the team as the Ravens' third quarterback, and this was an opportunity to showcase himself for the rest of the league. "Troy competed out there," Harbaugh said. "I'm sure there are a few plays that he would want back. It's hard. Sometimes, you have more time than you think. He will look at the tape and say, ‘I could have hung in there and thrown it here,' and other times he couldn't. There are tough circumstances."

The Ravens kept three quarterbacks on the roster during each of Harbaugh's first two seasons in Baltimore, but they could get by with two this year considering the presence of starter Joe Flacco and two-time Pro Bowl selection Marc Bulger as his backup.

Rams rookie quarterback Sam Bradford, the top overall pick of the draft from Oklahoma, completed all six of his passes on the opening drive of the game. That included a 36-yard sideline touch pass to wide receiver Danny Amendola behind Williams. Four plays later, Bradford lobbed a two-yard touchdown pass to starting tight end Billy Bajema wide open behind Phillips.

"That's on me," Phillips said. "I played the run a little too hard. I should have known that they were going to try to throw it." Phillips, who's on the roster bubble, has had a strong preseason as a run-stuffer and blitzer as he recorded nine tackles to lead the team against St. Louis.

However, the gritty former fifth-round draft pick's deficiencies in pass coverage could ultimately cost him his job. "Early on, I was hyped up to get out there and was overrunning some plays and doing some things I don't normally do in my game just because of the gravity of it being the last game and wanting to make a lot of plays," Phillips said. "I just put it all out there. Hopefully, I made the decision hard for them."

Bradford was removed from the game after completing 6 of 6 throws for 68 yards and one touchdown.

The Rams weren't done marching downfield. Null engineered an eight-play 79-yard drive on the Ram's second offensive drive capped by his three-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Brandon Gibson in the corner of the end zone. It was an outstanding catch and throw, and there wasn't much journeyman cornerback Travis Fisher could do about preventing the score. Fisher's roster status could be affected by the arrival of former University of Maryland cornerback Josh Wilson this week via a trade from the Seattle Seahawks.

Days before kickoff, undrafted rookie cornerback Prince Miller talked about not forcing plays as a punt returner and maintaining his composure. That approach wasn't on display during a major blunder in the second quarter.

Miller retreated several yards inside the 10-yard line on a booming punt by Donnie Jones, fumbling it into the Ravens' end zone. Luckily, it was ruled a touchback after a mad scramble for the loose football that was recovered by Ravens defensive back K.J. Gerard. Now, Miller is probably bound for the practice squad.

"When I was tracking it, I just lost it a little bit," Miller said. "I was trying to make a play. That's what you do. You try to make plays. I'm not making excuses. Nobody's perfect. I should have known to either let it go or catch it and what you can with it."

The Ravens were stuffed again on the ensuing possession with Smith being sacked by defensive end Victor Adeyanju on third down. The fumble was recovered by offensive lineman Joe Reitz. The Rams' next series was halted at the Ravens' 17-yard line when outside linebacker Edgar Jones sacked Null as they settled for a 45-yard Josh Brown field goal and a 17-7 lead.

Operating the shotgun offense to open the second half, Smith looked much more comfortable. He connected on a series of short passes before scrambling up the middle for an 18-yard gain down to the Rams' four-yard line.

Two plays later, Smith pushed up the middle on a quarterback sneak for a one-yard touchdown to bring the Ravens to within three points. "Troy knows he can make plays with his feet," Harbaugh said. "Sometimes, he relies on that." The 12-play, 80-yard drive engineered by Smith lasted 5 minutes and 38 seconds. After a Smith pass meant for rookie tight end Dennis Pitta was intercepted by Eugene Sims in the third quarter, the Rams capitalized on the turnover with a 54-yard field goal from Brown. In the fourth quarter, the Rams padded their lead on a 26-yard Thaddeus Lewis touchdown pass to wide receiver Brandon McRae. Rookie cornerback Chris Hawkins whiffed in the open field while unsuccessfully trying to tackle McRae by the sideline.

Williams, who played despite a sprained right ankle, Marcus Smith and David Reed didn't really distinguish themselves other than Reed's impressive 53-yard kickoff return in the first half.

Reed caught three passes for 65 yards. Williams caught two passes for 38 yards. And Smith was targeted twice and caught no passes. Smith bolted into the end zone up the middle for a two-yard touchdown late in the fourth quarter to cap the Ravens' scoring. Smith expressed confidence that he's done enough to not be released.

"There's no doubt," he said. "I think what we have here is tremendously special. I think it can't be matched anywhere because we've been through the tough times and we've been through some great times, too. This team is tremendously talented. We've got a chance to do some special things."

There were no field goal attempts by kickers Shayne Graham and Billy Cundiff, so Cundiff should retain his slight edge as the Ravens contemplate who should win the job. "They've had a month to gather information, stats, make their decisions whether there's reputation, history involved or just straight out numbers," Graham said . "Who knows? My job is to kick. Their job is to coach and make decisions, so it's in their hands now."

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