For the second consecutive year, we Ravens fans enter the preseason eager to wipe the bitter taste of a postseason loss to a hated rival out of our mouths. Last year, it was the 2008 AFC Championship game in Pittsburgh we were looking to push out of our memories. This year, the 2009 AFC Divisional game in Indianapolis is, unfortunately, our most recent football memory. Thus, it is with wide open arms we welcome in the 2010 NFL season, even if it is just in preseason mode at the moment.
So, besides the elation that comes with watching our purple and black take the field for the first time in nearly seven months, what should we be watching for on Thursday night? Here’s my far-from-exhaustive list:
Is there really any question that watching #81 catch passes at M&T Bank Stadium is what has most Ravens fans salivating most at the moment? Anquan Boldin gives the Ravens’ passing attack the kind of legitimacy it hasn’t had since Vinny Testaverde was heaving pigskins to Michael Jackson and Derrick Alexander in the team’s infancy.
Boldin has already been putting on a show at training camp, so expectations certainly haven’t fallen since his arrival in B’More. The naysayers will point out that Boldin’s strong camp has “only been against the Ravens’ weak secondary.” Boldin has had little trouble regardless of his opponents throughout his career, but Thursday will be his first chance to show us Ravens fans what he can do as a member of our squad.
Is he in sync with Joe Flacco yet?
Does his presence open up space for Derrick Mason and Todd Heap?
These questions obviously won’t be answered this week, as Boldin and the rest of the starters are likely to play no more than a quarter, but it’s something to watch as the march to the regular season continues.
Boldin, of course, isn’t the only wide receiver on the roster. Along with old faithful (emphasis on old) Derrick Mason, the Ravens will trot out Mark Clayton and Dante Stallworth, who are fighting for the #3 spot. By all accounts, Stallworth is putting on a show at camp, but Clayton is also thriving from the slot position, which is the more natural for a player of his particular skill set. While they are both likely to make the roster, the competition has them both trying to push their games to the next level, which only benefits the team as a whole.
For the second straight year, the Ravens kicking game is in flux as the preseason opens. However, the two men in the competition this year are much more established NFL performers than their 2009 counterparts were. Nobody is confusing Billy Cundiff and Shayne Graham with Graham Gano and Steven Haushka. Graham is expected to win the job by most, but Cundiff is conceding nothing.
Originally, the coaching staff had said that each kicker would get a half in the preseason games, but that has changed. John Harbaugh now plans to rotate the two on each field goal attempt, to try to ensure them equal opportunities as the final decision approaches.
Remember to keep an eye on their kickoffs as well – not just how far they fly, but on how the opponents return games fair against each. The hang-time and directional placement of kickoffs has a lot more to do with kick coverage success than many fans realize.
The Jared Gaither saga has made the O-line into a drama that was not supposed to be. I’ll be very interested to see who the team starts at right tackle opposite Michael Oher. The staff knows that, if needed, Marshal Yanda can more than adequately fill that role, with Chris Chester moving inside to Yanda’s guard spot. However, I think they may want to give third-year man Oniel Cousins the chance to win the job in Gaither’s absence. Cousins’ mistakes in the second Pittsburgh game last year were detrimental to the team, but reports have been positive on the 315-pounder so far this summer.
None of us really have any idea how the Gaither thing will wind up playing out. Luckily, the team has a ton of quality depth at both the guard and tackle positions. It’s definitely worth watching to see how this group plays in the preseason, both in opening up lanes for Ray Rice and in keeping Joe Flacco on his feet.
In another mirror image of 2009, the battle for the right to line up next to Ray Lewis on Sundays is one to watch. Last year, rookie Dannell Ellerbe came out of nowhere to win the starting job by the end of the season. He was expected to start again in 2010, but it has actually been Jameel McClain getting the majority of the snaps with the first team in Westminster. McClain, in his 3rd season out of Syracuse, had 2.5 sacks as a rookie in 2008, but didn’t do much in 2009. He had a great offseason though, and now finds himself with the edge over Ellerbe and Tavares Gooden. Practice is one thing though – McClain will have to show that he can perform in game situations to keep his name atop the list.
McClain may also have an edge, as he is considered the best of the three at getting to the quarterback. Which brings us to our next item…
I say “pass defense” here and not just “secondary” for a reason (and I thank Rob Long of Fox1370 for driving home this point today). Ravens fans are extremely worried about the team’s secondary, with Domonique Foxworth out for the season already, Lardarius Webb and Fabian Washington both coming off ACL injuries of their own in 2009, and the continually up-in-the-air status of Ed Reed. The team’s starting corners on Thursday are likely to be Cary Williams and Travis Fisher – not two names that exactly inspire confidence.
However, the success (or lack thereof) of the Ravens’ secondary this year will hinge heavily on the other aspect of pass defense, the pass rush.
Quick, name the four starting cornerbacks on last year’s two Super Bowl teams, the Colts and Saints.
Some of you may have done it, but I’m guessing many of you couldn’t. And even if you could, there are no “big name” CBs like Champ Bailey, Darrelle Revis, or Nnamdi Asomugha on those rosters. What the Colts and Saints have in spades that helps their respective secondaries is a consistently strong pass rush, especially from their front four.
The Ravens’ pass rush will be the key in 2010. If they hang those backup-quality DBs out to dry for 5-6 seconds at a time, we are in trouble. As we are if it takes 6- and 7-man blitzes to get pressure.
Haloti Ngata says he has been focusing on getting to the passer this offseason. He will need to greatly improve that part of his game to take the next step as an elite DL in the NFL.
Newly acquired DT Cory Redding posted back-to-back 10-sack seasons in 2006 and 2007, while playing in the football wasteland of Detroit. If having a Haloti Ngata and Terrell Suggs lining up around him can rekindle performances like that, the Ravens may be in decent shape.
Speaking of Suggs, keep an eye on #55 as well. All reports out of training camp indicate that you’ll like what you see from the lean-and-mean Sizzle. He won’t suddenly be asked to put his hand in the dirt and rush the QB every play like he was at the start of his career, but when he does rush, take note of whether or not the Panthers try to double-team him, and how he does against any one-on-one blocking he faces.
Again, this list is far from exhaustive, but hey, it’s only the preseason. Most of you will check out after the first quarter or so, along with the starters. If you stick around though, the Ravens’ depth will be on full display. Guys like Demetrius Williams and Marcus Smith at the WR position, who haven’t had to fight for roster spots in the past, will be doing just that to try to keep their jobs. Players who would likely be starting on other teams, like a Brandon McKinney or Marc Bulger, will have the chance to beat up on the Panthers’ reserves.
I don’t bother predicting scores of preseason games (not that I could do much worse than I do for regular season and playoff games though), but I do expect the Ravens to win on Thursday. They are an extremely deep team, as Tony Lombardi tells us, everywhere except cornerback.