“If the regular refs are here, we know how those calls will be made. That should be the case but it’s not the way it is right now.”
– Ray Lewis (September 16, 2012)
ONLY A FOOL WOULD PUT any stock into what their eyes see in preseason results, but everyone on the Ravens’ coaching staff loved what they saw when the team’s first unit annihilated the Jacksonville Jaguars first unit in Baltimore during the third preseason game on August 23, 2012, a 48-17 whipping. Keep in mind that the Ravens were humiliated by the Jags nine months earlier in a game that counted, a 12-7 loss widely remembered as the night that a healthy Ray Rice touched the ball just 13 times and Flacco looked lost along with the rest of the offense. It was one of four hideous road defeats for a 2011 team that played out Jekyll & Hyde for all to see. Jekyll at home. Hyde on the road for long stretches of the first years of the Harbaugh-Flacco era.
But on this hot, sticky Baltimore evening it was a purple demolition act as Flacco carved up the overmatched Jaguars defense, ending the night 27-of-36 for 266 yards and two TD throws to Anquan Boldin and Vonta Leach. The defense forced five punts in the first half, and it was a night where the starters inspired the backups, who came on in the third quarter and continued the domination.
Throughout the lead up to the season opener vs. Cincinnati, the feeling inside The Castle was: if we can play like that every week, this team could be really good.
And despite the death of Art Modell just four days before the opener and the weekend of memories and tributes for the Ravens’ founder, the team was focused on the task at hand – beating the Cincinnati Bengals on the season opener of Monday Night Football.
After an emotional tribute to Modell, the Ravens came out flying against the Bengals. Flacco threw a bomb to Torrey Smith down the middle of the field and the opening drive resulted in a Justin Tucker 46-yard field goal. On the next drive, Smith took an end-around handoff and blew by the Bengals with some trickery. On a 4th and 1 from the 20, Flacco threw a pass to Ray Rice at the sticks and the drive ended with Rice scoring on a 6-yard run. New addition Jacoby Jones caught his first pass on the next drive for a 25-yard pickup. Two plays later, Flacco split the seam down the middle of the defense and dropped a perfect pass into the arms of Boldin in the end zone.
Despite dominating much of the first half, the Ravens’ defense allowed Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton to drive down the field in a two-minute offense behind a big catch and run by Andrew Hawkins. On a 3rd and 1 from the 7 with 30 seconds remaining, Ed Reed knocked down a Tucker pass in the end zone and the Bengals had a tough decision on fourth down. Down 17-3, head coach Marvin Lewis sensed a chance to get back in the game and BenJarvus Green got the first down and pushed across a TD on the next play to make it a 17-10 lead at the half.
The Bengals got the ball in the second half and moved the ball down the field before being stopped at the 2-yard on an 11-play drive that ended with a Mike Nugent field goal.
And that was all that the Bengals would get on Opening Night. Flacco started rolling, Rice started rumbling, and Leach was burying linebackers all night long. Dennis Pitta caught a 10-yard TD pass, Tucker hit a 40-yard field goal, and Ed Reed picked off a Dalton pass on the run to score a 34-yard TD return. The Ravens were rolling 34-13. Ray Lewis managed to chase down Dalton across the middle, stripping the ball and Lardarius Webb recovered as the Ravens laughed their way to a season-opening 44-13 blowout of the thought-to-be-improving Cincinnati Bengals.
Simply put, it was a clinic. The team fired on all cylinders and looked like a dominant force on national television, putting to bed any residue from the horrific loss in New England in their last meaningful contest. The offense played with great pace, and Cameron’s unit utilized the no huddle – or the “sugar huddle,” as it was called by the staff – to befuddle the Bengals defense. Flacco ended the day 21-of-29 for 299 yards and two TD’s. Eight different receivers caught passes, and punter Sam Koch was used just twice.
The Ravens wanted to set the tone for the season. And the rest of the division lost in Week 1 so first place in the AFC North division was all theirs for a week.
“Obviously, everything went pretty well for us tonight,” Flacco said. “That tempo really helped us out because those guys can really get to the passer and really create a lot of pressure. I think the fact that we were able to go up-tempo and kind of keep those guys on the field took its toll on them.”
Marvin Lewis downplayed the role of the offensive pace, but the result spoke for itself. “That certainly wasn’t what we expected to have out there today,” he said. “We got outplayed, and we got outcoached. I wish I could say it was the no-huddle. I think it’s an effective thing for them, and it’s something they’ll continue to do, but I don’t think it really bothered us.”
Ray Lewis loved what he saw from the offense. “Joe kind of got us into a rhythm and always kept their defense off balance,” he said. “We’ve practiced against this offense all offseason, so to see it now, when everything’s real, I think you have to take your hats off to how hard we worked as a team.”
Harbaugh was asked how good the offense and Flacco could be every week if they performed like they did against the Bengals. “Scary good,” Harbaugh said. “That’s probably the word right there. I’ll go with that. We’ve always stood up here, and we’ve always, all of our coaches, the organization, we know what we’ve got in this guy. He has won a lot of football games, and it’s easy for the pundits and prognosticators [to criticize], as my dad will say. That’s what you do; you try to figure out and write the stories. Joe Flacco is going to be a great player. Joe Flacco is a great player. Joe Flacco has been a great player.”
Rice, in his first game since signing his big contract, carried the ball just 10 times for 68 yards and caught three more passes for 25 yards. “It was really fun for me. I barely got hit tonight,” he said.
The buzz around the NFL in Week 1 wasn’t as much on the field as it was in the NFL offices in New York where the referees and the league had gone to war over wages and pensions. The two sides were involved in nasty negotiations that saw replacement officials on the field through the weekend. The results were less than thrilling for anyone associated with the league. Coaches, players, fans, and announcers were all grumbling at the poor calls and the inconsistency, but mostly the confusion about the basics, like the rules and down and distance markers.