Football season is back! Finally, after seven months of the bad taste in our mouths that came with the AFC Championship game loss in Pittsburgh, we get to see our Ravens take the field once again.
Seeing those ugly burgundy and….yellow(?) uniforms lining up at M&T Bank Stadium will bring back fond memories of last December 7, when the Ravens beat up on the Redskins in sub-zero temperatures in prime time.
The thermometer won’t be the only thing drastically different when Washington and B’More knock heads at 7:30 this evening though. Sure, kickoff temps will be about 60 degrees warmer, but much more interesting is that instead of seeing teams fighting for playoff spots, this time around we will be watching individual players competing for jobs.
So what are some of the most interesting position battles to watch for the Ravens? Let’s take a look…
While many NFL towns would give a collective yawn at the prospect of a battle for the placekicker position, here in B’More, where we have grown all too used to winning games 3 points at a time over the years, we know the importance of a good leg.
But in 2009, for the first time in franchise history, that good leg won’t be attached to the hip of Matt Stover. Steve Hauschka and Graham Gano will vie for one spot all preseason, and their performances in these games will go a long way to determining which of the two dons purple on September 13, and which is hoping to be picked up off the waiver wire.
By all accounts, the two have been neck-and-neck in Westminster, making the four “exhibition” contests all the more crucial. Hauschka is set to work the first half, with Gano doing the honors in quarters three and four. They will be judged on kickoff distance (Matt Stover’s weakest point late in his career), and on, of course, making their field goal attempts. Keep a close eye on both kickers, and how they perform both tasks tonight.
While it seemed a given entering training camp that Ray Lewis would be lining up next to “Little Ray,” Tavares Gooden against Kansas City on Opening Day, but Jameel McClain and rookie Dannell Ellerbe have other ideas. The two have both played well in training camp, and have made it a three-horse race in the battle to replace the departed (*tear*) Bart Scott.
According to Mike Preston, Ellerbe has been extremely impressive “between the tackles” (read – against the run), while McClain is the best of the three at pressuring the quarterback, and Gooden has the most range. It will be interesting to see which of the three has their name called the most on broadcasts tonight and over the next few weeks.
The bulked-up Ray Rice has been getting most of the reps with the starters in training camp, and was expected to win the job of #1 back. However, Willis McGahee has shown an improved work ethic in 2009, and has not let himself be pushed to the back burner quite yet. And of course, there is last season’s leading rusher, Le’Ron “Pain Train” McClain, who, despite promises from Cam Cameron to be used more in the traditional fullback role this year, will demand his share of touches.
The Ravens will undoubtedly be a RB-by-committee again in ’09, but the three will engage in a healthy competition to determine who receives the lion’s share of the carries.
For the third RB spot, Jalen Parmelee has had a good showing at McDaniel College, but will be challenged by 6th-round draft pick Cedric Peerman.
Saving the most talked about position on the Ravens for last, we come to the WR situation.
With starters Mark Clayton (hamstring-out), Derrick Mason (finger – questionable), and Demetrius Williams (hamstring – questionable), set to see minimal reps, Kelley Washington, Justin Harper and Marcus Smith will see plenty of “burn” tonight, and have the chance to catch passes from Joe Flacco in live game action.
With those three playing early, the lower rungs of the depth chart will get more chances than they usually would. Jason Foster, Eron Riley, and Ernie Wheelright will have plenty of opportunities in the second half to show that they belong in purple and black.
A very interesting guy to watch will be Yamon Figurs. Figurs, the Ravens’ former unquestioned return specialist, seems to be out of a job, and a roster spot, with the signing of Chris Carr. He will have to prove that he can line up and run routes, something he has thus far been unable to do, save for a long TD reception in Houston last season.
While admittedly not completely exhaustive, that’s probably a long enough list of things to pay attention to in tonight’s game. Because, hey, even with so much going on, it’s still preseason, after all, and nobody expects you to watch four quarters with your notebooks out.