Commentary

Ravens resurrect running game

Rookie LB Mosley stars for Ravens; 49ers' defense and WRs are in transition

Originally Published: August 8, 2014
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

BALTIMORE -- The Harbaugh family football weekend got off to a bad start for San Francisco 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh.

In Jim's words, his 49ers were pushed around in a 23-3 loss to his brother, John, and the Baltimore Ravens. Jim Harbaugh isn't one to make excuses. His defense was missing a half-dozen starters. The 49ers, who perhaps have one of the deepest running back corps in football, could only offer rookie Carlos Hyde and some journeymen.

In the big picture, it's easy to write off the 49ers. But Jim Harbaugh, perhaps the most competitive head coach in the NFL, never concedes. He and the 49ers will spend the extended weekend in the Baltimore area for scrimmages against the Ravens.

The trip got off to a bad start when the 49ers and Ravens found out late last week they couldn't hold a public workout on Aug. 8 because it would mean too many consecutive days of practice. Oh well, at least Jim and John and family will spend some quality time together. They did it once in a Super Bowl. Why not the preseason?

Here are the five things we learned from the Ravens-49ers game:

1. The Ravens got off to a good start running the football: Ravens fans shouldn't be blown away by the Ravens' running numbers. Sure, Baltimore gained 237 yards on 48 carries. That was nice, but 59 were on five scrambles by backup quarterback Tyrod Taylor, and as noted above, the 49ers were down on healthy defensive linemen.

Call it a good step forward for the Ravens along with being an important one. New offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak is trying to establish the zone running attack he learned in Denver and built in Houston. Ray Rice had three carries and 17 yards and was cheered by the Ravens' home faithful. Bernard Pierce hit the hole hard for 10 carries and 37 yards. In practices, observers have noted Pierce has been outperforming Rice. With Rice suspended for the first two games, the Ravens need to set up Pierce for a good start. What helped was how well the offensive line blocked. Since midseason last year, the Ravens have gone to three new starters: left tackle Eugene Monroe, center Jeremy Zuttah and right tackle Ricky Wagner. Pierce did seem to stretch some of his runs a little longer than Rice. Both played well.

2. A preview of coming attractions for Joe Flacco: Kubiak has Flacco doing things he's never done since coming into the league in 2008. Flacco's rolling out. He's working on a few more three- and five-step drops. Heck, he hit tight end Dennis Pitta with a 14-yard screen pass, something he never did before. Kubiak has expanded the use of the Ravens' weapons. Past offensive coordinators used a fullback to block. On Thursday night, the Ravens used new starting fullback Kyle Juszczyk as a pass-catcher, getting him for a 17-yard completion. Flacco took his first possession 80 yards in 10 plays for a touchdown drive, which earned him the chance to end his day of work. He completed four of five passes for 52 yards.

3. The 49ers aren't tipping off any offensive changes with Stevie Johnson: One of the big things I was seeking in the 49ers' opener was to see whether Jim Harbaugh was going to open up his offense.

Last year, the 49ers used three-receiver sets only 12.8 plays a game. Basically, if there was a third-and-long, a third receiver went onto the field, even though last season the 49ers went through the first 11 games with only one quality receiver, Anquan Boldin.

Michael Crabtree sat out the Ravens game, but at least we got a good look at Stevie Johnson. He got into his routes quickly as he did in Buffalo. The 49ers might have the most improved receiving corps in football. Boldin and Crabtree are the starters. Bruce Ellington looks like the deep-speed option they've been missing since Randy Moss left after the 2012 season. Second-year receiver Quinton Patton looks improved. The question is what Harbaugh is going to do with all the excess. He believes in a power running offense. Watching Thursday night, it's hard to say whether he will open it up.

4. C.J. Mosley looks to be the real deal: Some were surprised when the Steelers drafted inside linebacker Ryan Shazier in the middle of the first round and the Ravens followed by taking Mosley. Mosley is already showing he's a three-down player and one of the potential key playmakers in the Ravens defense.

He was on the field for only 24 plays, but he was everywhere. He had five tackles, a sack, a tackle for a loss and a quarterback hurry. He can rush from the inside linebacker position. He can pressure a quarterback. He can drop into coverage. Having veteran Daryl Smith next to him, Mosley could emerge as one of the early candidates for defensive rookie of the year.

5. The state of the 49ers defense: Harbaugh has used his stout defense to go to three consecutive NFC title games, including one trip to the Super Bowl. Two years ago, Harbaugh's defense used only 13 players to get through games.

But this preseason, the 49ers need to integrate more young talent. NaVorro Bowman is expected to be out half the season with a knee injury. The team is braced for a lengthy suspension for linebacker Aldon Smith. They are down to nose tackles Glenn Dorsey and Ian Williams because of injuries.

A couple of young defensive linemen stepped up Thursday and offered some optimism. Quinton Dial had 10 tackles. Tank Carradine had eight tackles and a sack. Though both have had their ups and downs in practice, the first preseason game offered hope.

One thought, though, with Bowman out half the year. Watch for linebacker Patrick Willis to be perhaps the first-half defensive player of the year in the NFC. When Willis missed a couple of games last year, Bowman showed why he is a stud. He was all over the field making tackles. Expect Willis to do the same.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer

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