Ravens defense is challenged early in a 37-30 preseason win over the Cowboys

ARLINGTON, Texas — The Ravens had hoped to play quarterback Joe Flacco and the rest of the first-team offense about a quarter, but very little went according to plan early last night against the Dallas Cowboys.

Less than three minutes into the game, their top healthy corner, Jimmy Smith, was on the sideline, bent over in pain. Flacco didn't take a snap until there was less than four minutes to play in the first quarter and when he did, the Ravens already had 14 points on the board. Running back Ray Rice didn't start and didn't get into the game until early in the second quarter, but his night ended after just two carries when he was taken into the locker room to have his shoulder examined.

Yet by night's end, the Ravens were feeling pretty good about themselves, a 37-30 victory over the Cowboys at AT&TStadium raising their preseason record to 2-0 and revealing enough positives to make up for a slow start for their defense.

X-rays of Smith's chest and Rice's shoulder were negative. Flacco brushed off early inactivity and inaccuracy to lead the Ravens to points on three of the final four drives of the second quarter, including a nifty 19-yard touchdown pass to Torrey Smith. Flacco played the entire first half.

“Happy with the victory,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. “Crazy game, really. ... With how the first half went, stats were one way and the points were the other way. That's kind of how it works sometimes. We got a little sloppy in the second half. Our coverage and tackling wasn't very good."

The Ravens built a huge lead against the Cowboys on the strength of touchdowns by their defense and special teams. Strong-side linebacker Courtney Upshaw scooped up a muffed handoff between Dallas quarterback Tony Romo and running back DeMarco Murray and rumbled 26 yards for a touchdown. Wide receiver Deonte Thompson, in a battle to make the team, returned a kickoff 108 yards for a touchdown.

“Deonte made a statement tonight,” Harbaugh said.

After the two early scores, the Ravens built a 27-10 lead at halftime and quickly added to it with a short touchdown run by rookie Lorenzo Taliaferro early in the third quarter. The running game accounted for 151 yards on 31 carries.

“It took us a while to get the ball, and we did some good things when we did,” Harbaugh said. “I thought our protection was OK, and we ran the ball downhill effectively. It was a consistent and good effort, offensively, in the first half.”

Because of the touchdowns by the defense and special teams and the starting defense's inability to get off the field against Romo and company, the Ravens only had the ball for one minute, 23 seconds in the first quarter to 13:37 for the Cowboys.

“To our defense's and special team's credit, they put some points on the board and made our jobs a little bit easier in the first quarter,” tight end Dennis Pitta said.

Flacco, who led a 10-play, 80-yard scoring march against the San Francisco 49ers in his only drive in the preseason opener, had just one completion in his first seven attempts against the Cowboys. But he warmed up and was at his best on the final two drives of the second quarter.

“It was definitely a weird situation, but it's something we could have to deal with any week throughout the season,” Flacco said. “We came out slow, weren't really firing on all cylinders and didn't keep ourselves on the field. But I thought we did a good job of fighting through it, getting some points and putting together a couple good drives — really just battling back and making something good out of it.”

After a 38-yard completion to Jacoby Jones, Flacco dropped a ball over cornerback Terrance Mitchell and into the hands of Smith for a 19-yard touchdown. The Ravens got the ball back with about a minute and a half to go and Flacco completed five passes in the two-minute drill to set up Justin Tucker's 38-yard field goal just eight seconds before halftime.

On his final two series, Flacco was 8-for-10 for 109 yards and a touchdown.

“When we're talking about the regular season at the end of a half, those drives are a lot of time a big decider in whether or not you win, so it's always important to get those,” Flacco said.

While the offense under new coordinator Gary Kubiak was the biggest question mark heading into the preseason, concerns continue to mount with the starting defense. After the X-ray, Jimmy Smith was back on the sideline smiling and chatting with teammates, an indication that the Ravens secondary had dodged another significant injury. Harbaugh said after the game he doesn't expect Rice or Smith to miss significant time.

“I don't know what is wrong with me,” said Smith, who walked across the locker room holding a bloody towel after the game. “On the field, I was throwing up blood. The X-rays came back negative, but I still don't know what is the problem.”

Veteran Dominique Franks replaced Smith and was beaten on a 31-yard touchdown catch as Romo and Dez Bryant connected. In his first game since back surgery in December, Romo was 4-for-5 for 80 yards and the touchdown.

The Ravens' starting defense struggled to put pressure on Romo, couldn't consistently corral Murray who rushed for 34 yards on eight carries, and missed several tackles in the open field. The defense had some of the same issues in the preseason opener against San Francisco.

“We just want to get used to having these live reps,” Ravens rush linebacker Terrell Suggs said. “This is what the preseason is for, so we can get ready for the regular season. It was good for us, because we played against a great offense. This was a good test for us tonight, and I think we responded well.”

jeff.zrebiec@baltsun.com

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