Despite coming of a tumultuous off-season the 2009 Baltimore Ravens had great continuity from the ‘08 season and relatively few major holes to fill. The big questions of the pre-season were how much improvement would we see out of Joe Flacco? Could Gregg Mattison hit the ground running with the defense in place of Rex Ryan? Would Tavares Gooden be able to step in for the departed Bart Scott? Would the Ravens have enough weapons on the outside for Flacco to be successful? How would the Ravens offense feature the contrasting styles of Ray Rice, Willis McGahee and LeRon McClain? Who would step in for the departed Matt Stover? And would it be a healthy pre-season, especially at the TE position with Todd Heap and LJ Smith?
Early on in the pre-season the Ravens did get bit by the injury bug. It was becoming clear that CB Samari Rolle was never going to get healthy. Then Terrell Suggs and Mark Clayton went down with injuries. The loss of Rolle and the Suggs knee injury, which contributed to him not being in good shape for the start of the season, were injuries that hurt the Ravens more than their fans and maybe the front office and coaches expected. This did not really show up in the pre-season, but for the balance of the year the Ravens struggled to generate pressure from their front four and with opposing QB’s given time to throw the ball the back end of the defense struggled to keep receivers from getting open downfield. In the pre-season these deficiencies were not very evident partly because it was the pre-season and partly because the Ravens did not face a who’s who of dynamic passing games.
The Ravens opened the pre-season with contests at home against the Washington Redskins and the New York Jets. The Redskins strolled into M&T and delivered the type of performance ‘Skins fans would get all too familiar with during the regular season. The Ravens, on the other hand, looked crisp and efficient on offense and very solid on defense cruising to a 23-0 win. Positive feelings all around, especially since Flacco looked so much quicker in making his reads and in delivering the ball.
Then came the Jets and with them a regular season atmosphere. The return of Ryan, Scott and Jim Leonhard made for plenty to talk about and the Ravens were getting their first look at QB Mark Sanchez. The game was very competitive, despite 2nd and 3rd stringers playing most of the 2nd half, and their was a surprising amount of blitzing for a pre-season game. Rex was just getting tuned up for the regular season. Sanchez looked overmatched for his first few series throwing a pick-6 on his first pass and almost being picked by Ray Lewis on his next attempt. To his credit, Sanchez began to calm down and make some plays engineering a TD drive mid-way through the 2nd quarter. Flacco was not extremely sharp, but looked good when given time and he hit Derrick Mason on a beautiful deep ball that set up the Ravens 2nd score.
Games 3 and 4 of the pre-season saw the Ravens travel south to Carolina and Atlanta. The Carolina game was the game that got me most excited about what the Ravens could accomplish this year. Carolina was thought of as a good NFC team, which proved not to be the case, and the Ravens thoroughly out-played them. I was particularly impressed with the play of Flacco and the crispness of the passing game. Flacco shredded the Panthers completing 23 of 28 throws for 247 yards and a TD in just over a half of play. The Ravens drove the ball consistently and the offense looked balanced and maybe even pass happy. It signified a turning tide in Ravens offensive philosophy. As we learned the shift was not for the entire season, but we saw the growth of Joe Flacco in just the 3rd game of his 2nd pre-season.
Not many starters played in Atlanta, but Ravens fans did get treated to seeing John Beck throw the ball around to Demetrius Williams and Erron Riley. The Ravens finished with a 4-0 record in the pre-season for the first time since the 2000 season. The undefeated pre-season did not lack significance among Raven’s fans, because the 2000 team went on to heights not seen before or since by Raven’s fans. Needless to say after an appearance in the AFC Championship game the season before and an undefeated pre-season, the ‘09 Ravens had a good vibe and a swagger heading into the regular season.