BALTIMORE — One can look no further than the AFC North to understand why Ravens right guard Kevin Zeitler referred to Week 1 as “the Wild West.”
Defending division champion Cincinnati scored a measly three points as Joe Burrow threw for a career-low 82 yards in an ugly 21-point loss at Cleveland. And after being one of the media darlings of the preseason, Pittsburgh was embarrassed at home by San Francisco.
Even looking outside the division, no one anticipated defending Super Bowl champion Kansas City, Minnesota, and Seattle all losing at home to begin the 2023 campaign.
With such context, the Ravens could feel pretty good about their 25-9 win over rebuilding Houston even as receiver Odell Beckham Jr. compared the performance of the passing game to “an undercooked appetizer.” It was far from the finest day for Lamar Jackson — or his offensive line — as he committed two turnovers and failed to pass or run for a touchdown, something that occurred only once over the last four seasons in games the superstar quarterback played from start to finish.
Head coach John Harbaugh acknowledged the perceived drawbacks of starters not playing in the preseason as the Ravens committed 13 penalties for 106 yards. However, the defense overcame its share of the infractions to do the heavy lifting in Sunday’s win by holding the Texans offense to just three field goals and turning up the heat on rookie quarterback C.J. Stroud with four sacks in the second half. The offense clearly wasn’t thrilled with its showing even after pulling away with two Justice Hill touchdown runs in the third quarter.
“I think it felt like we didn’t play in the preseason,” Zeitler said. “Week 1 is always kind of like the Wild West. You never know what’s going to happen Week 1. That first half [was] pretty sloppy by any standards. But we got some things going in the second half a little bit.
“I think we know we have potential, but it’s on us to improve.”
Unfortunately, that potential took a major hit with the loss of running back J.K. Dobbins to a torn Achilles tendon early in the second half, his second season-ending injury of the last three years. There’s no downplaying losing such a home run hitter for the ground game, especially if new offensive coordinator Todd Monken and the Ravens are committed to shying away from as many designed runs for Jackson. Of his six carries that went for 38 yards on Sunday, five were scrambles with the exception being a quarterback sneak on a third-and-1 late in the first quarter.
Unlike two years ago, the cupboard isn’t bare at running back with Gus Edwards and Hill poised for bigger roles and former two-time Pro Bowl selection Melvin Gordon likely to be promoted from the practice squad, but Dobbins entering Sunday with a career 5.9 yards per carry average wasn’t a fluke. There’s no winning the Super Bowl in Week 1, but losing such upside can put a substantial dent in your championship aspirations. Unfortunately, it’s a lesson the Ravens have learned all too well over the last few seasons.
Baltimore must also hope for favorable results on pending MRIs for left tackle Ronnie Stanley (knee), center Tyler Linderbaum (ankle), and safety Marcus Williams (chest), the three other starters who left Sunday’s game with injuries.
Even with the loss of Dobbins, the Ravens offense still has much to like. We were reminded how valuable three-time Pro Bowl tight end Mark Andrews is to this passing game as Jackson had little working over the middle of the field in his absence, but the good news is Andrews should be back much sooner than later as Baltimore chose to play it safe with his late-summer quad injury that kept him out of practice until this past week. The Ravens will surely need him for next Sunday’s road clash with the Bengals.
The most encouraging offensive takeaway from Sunday was the performance of rookie first-round wide receiver Zay Flowers. You always wonder how a rookie will handle each new checkpoint of an NFL season, and Flowers shined to the tune of a game-high 87 yards on 11 touches. It may not have compared to the historic 2019 debut of Marquise Brown — another reminder to keep Week 1 in proper perspective — but Flowers was Jackson’s go-to receiver over Beckham and Rashod Bateman, successfully moving the chains on four third downs.
Just like he did on the back fields in Owings Mills and in limited preseason snaps over the summer, Flowers juked Houston defenders and avoided tackles on multiple occasions, showing off upside similar to what the Ravens will miss with Dobbins. They’ll need more of that going forward.
“I already knew what Zay was capable of, and he showed it himself — making guys miss and running great routes, catching the ball, getting up the field, getting yards after the catch,” Jackson said. “We want to get everybody involved. We have a lot of great guys on that field [and] in our receiving room. I feel like we’re on to something special here.”
That may still be the case after an up-and-down Week 1 showing, but the margin for error has already shrunk with the offense losing its best running back for the season and hoping not to be without two key linemen for too long, especially with three AFC North road games looming over the next four weeks.
The Ravens were willing to accept some Week 1 rust in the name of avoiding preseason injuries after what they suffered two years ago. Unfortunately, the injury bug didn’t take long to bite them anyway. In Harbaugh’s words, “it’s football” after all.
But losing such upside won’t be easy to replace.