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Sam Howell provides excitement but can’t lead Commanders past Ravens

Ravens 17, Commanders 15

Rookie quarterback Sam Howell, absorbed plenty of contact but also showed promising flashes for Washington on Saturday night in Baltimore. (Nick Wass/AP)

BALTIMORE — If the Washington Commanders’ final preseason game mattered at all — and there’s a case to be made it did not — the meaning was mostly found in the small moments that ultimately contributed little to the 17-15 loss to the Baltimore Ravens.

The highlights: Several young defensive role players finished the game healthy; wide receiver Dyami Brown continued to struggle with consistency; and kicker Joey Slye missed a field goal for the first time with Washington, though he redeemed himself by later nailing a 44-yarder and a 29-yarder.

Long term, one of the most notable performances was by rookie quarterback Sam Howell. He flashed a lot of promise — completing 24 of 35 passes for 280 yards, a touchdown and no interceptions — and absorbed a lot of contact, including five sacks, eight tackles and 12 quarterback hits.

This season, Howell is unlikely to play a large role in determining whether the Commanders take a step forward in Coach Ron Rivera’s critical third year. Taylor Heinicke, who did not play, remains entrenched as the backup, and while Rivera said he believes Howell has a bright future, the young passer also “has some growing to do,” including in commanding the offense and refining his five-step drop.

Midway through the fourth quarter, Howell led a long scoring drive that set up a two-point conversion that could have tied the game. But Howell’s slant to Matt Cole bounced off Cole’s shoulder pad and fell incomplete. Washington finished its tuneup slate 0-3, while Baltimore extended its record preseason winning streak to 23.

Next, the coaches will grade and discuss the film. Then Rivera will meet the personnel department, led by General Manager Martin Mayhew and executive vice president of football and player personnel Marty Hurney, and they will decide how many players to keep at each position. On Tuesday, they will cut the roster from 80 to 53. Rivera said there were four to seven competitive spots heading into the game.

“We just felt there was a pretty good battle going on,” he said.

Before the game, Washington declared 32 players inactive, including all of the offensive starters, most of the defensive starters and a few on the bubble battling injuries. The important defenders who played — slot corner Benjamin St-Juste, safety Darrick Forrest and ends James Smith-Williams and Casey Toohill — were all young players who could use the extra experience.

Despite being ruled out before the game, linebacker Jamin Davis jumped in as well. On the second play, he squared up Ravens power back Mike Davis in a gap and dropped him for a one-yard loss.

Early on, the offense moved the ball well. Howell’s first drive went 12 plays and 61 yards, a sizable chunk of which came when Brown elevated on the run for an impressive 26-yard snag.

But for Brown, the game encapsulated the inconsistency that has defined his young career. He reeled in the big gain — and then dropped two straight third-down throws. The first was an easy slant, and the second was a more difficult go route, though he should have been at his best on the latter. Washington made Brown a third-round pick in 2021 in large part because he excelled at catching go routes from Howell at North Carolina.

In three preseason games, Brown caught 6 of 14 targets for 65 yards. While his roster spot as the fourth or fifth wide receiver seems safe, the shaky performance hasn’t inspired confidence that he will meaningfully improve on his rookie year, when he caught 12 of 25 targets for 165 yards. Rivera said consistency will come with reps.

“I’m not overly concerned,” he added.

To end the opening drive, Slye pushed a 43-yard field goal attempt wide left. Late last season, the 26-year-old from Virginia Tech led the Commanders out of kicker purgatory as he went 9 for 10 on extra points and 12 for 12 on field goals.

But the wide-left miss was his second this preseason. In the opener against Carolina, Slye missed an extra point.

“He overkicked the ball,” Rivera said. “You go back and look at his first kick in every game, he fricking [kills it]. Then he relaxes and he bangs ’em through.”

Rivera said he told Slye: “Just calm down. Stroke it like you’re hitting a golf ball.”

Later in the game, the coaches’ usage of depth players offered hints for how the front office might shape the margins of the roster this week. In the battle for sixth wideout/punt returner, Dax Milne seemed to have an edge on Alex Erickson. Outside linebacker Milo Eifler played ahead of Khaleke Hudson for the second game in a row. If the team keeps a fourth running back, which seems unlikely, it probably won’t be fan favorite Jaret Patterson, who stayed in the game until its final moments.

Late in the second quarter, safety Jeremy Reaves, who is fighting for a final spot at defensive back, made one of the plays of the game. On third down, he recognized the formation and knew the Ravens were about to send running back Nate McCrary left.

On the snap, he burst into the backfield, dove low and flipped McCrary into the air. The play symbolized the growth in Reaves’s game and a leap in confidence. It encapsulated what the final preseason game is all about.

In each of the past four years, Reaves was cut on the final day. The former undrafted free agent truly believes this year will be different. So in the hours before Washington must make its decision, he has a simple plan.

“Watch Jacksonville tape,” he said. “That’s the next opponent.”