Ravens running back Lorenzo Taliaferro finds a hole against… (Al Drago, Baltimore Sun )
It is early in the preseason, so it's OK to dream at this point.
After an impressive drive on their only series together as starters, the Ravens had something to smile about Thursday night in the preseason opener against the San Francisco 49ers.
What if this offensive line can play this well all season?
We're not going to get ridiculous here. The Ravens had a 10-play, 80-yard scoring drive that ended with a 2-yard touchdown run by Bernard Pierce on their opening drive.
Of course the 49ers had six defensive starters out of the lineup, and their game-day intensity was certainly lacking, but that's not what you look for in preseason game No. 1.
On the offensive line, you look for communication and cohesion. And with the Ravens, you look to see whether their two best offensive linemen have healed from a year ago and whether two new starters could be effective.
For one game, for at least one series, the answer was yes. And then you dream because that's all you can ask for at this point.
It wasn't that way a year ago. Going into the 2013 season, expectations were high because the Ravens were coming off a Super Bowl year and had four of five starting linemen returning. But those dreams disappeared quickly. Pro Bowl right guard Marshal Yanda never played at 100 percent health because of offseason shoulder surgery. Before the midway point of the season, left guard Kelechi Osemele was on the sideline with a season-ending back injury, and left tackle Bryant McKinnie had eaten his way out of the starting lineup.
The Ravens were constantly overpowered up the middle, and quarterback Joe Flacco was sacked 48 times, as the team finished 8-8 and failed to make the playoffs for the first time in six years under coach John Harbaugh.
Maybe those fortunes are about to change in 2014.
Thursday night was a success. The Ravens came off the ball hard and were strong at the point of attack consistently. There wasn't anything fancy or cute, but for the first time in recent years, the Ravens used a lot of combination blocks to get movement at the line of scrimmage.
Osemele and Yanda were quick, and Flacco had little pressure, completing four of five passes for 52 yards in the drive.
"It was nice," Flacco said. "It felt good to get out there in a game-type situation and feel the nerves of a real game. I enjoyed being out there and doing it for real, and I thought we did pretty well. We moved the ball methodically, with precision, and got it in the end zone."
Second-year right tackle Rick Wagner, who still has to prove he can start in the NFL, was impressive.
He got good push on running plays and was quick off the ball to set up in pass protection. There were times he was overpowering, but he always stayed engaged, though played too upright at times.
Wagner wasn't playing against 49ers outside linebacker Aldon Smith or inside linebacker Patrick Willis, but he looked much improved from a year ago.
And if he continues to get better and both Osemele and Yanda stay healthy, then the Ravens could have a special offense.
They have to be able to run the ball, and if they can't, then they won't win many games. Their passing game, which consists of a lot of play-action, is based off the running game. Running back Ray Rice had 17 yards on three carries.
But more importantly, we got a glimpse of what could happen if the Ravens can run and Flacco is protected. Offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak is going to be conservative for most of the preseason, but he showed the two-tight-end look.
He went with one back, two backs and at times ran with an empty backfield. The Ravens have plenty of weapons, with wide receiver Torrey Smith on one side, wideout Steve Smith on the other and tight ends Dennis Pitta, Owen Daniels and fullback/H-back Kyle Juszczyk working the middle of the field.
These matchups could present a lot of problems. But it is all meaningless if the Ravens can't get it done up front on the offensive line.
"It's definitely coming together," center Jeremy Zuttah said. "We have some tremendously talented players like Marshal Yanda, K.O and Eugene [Monroe, left tackle]. They're great players, but they're also great guys. Being around them more and more, we're definitely starting to jell."