That’s right, it’s football. Another season ended in heartbreak for our Ravens in 2010, as the team choked away a 21-7 halftime lead at Heinz Field on their way to losing to the Steelers 31-24 in the divisional round of the AFC Playoffs at Heinz Field (fortunately, the season also ended in heartbreak for those shithead Yinzers as well.)
Well, after seven long months, we finally get to watch the purple and black take the field again. While it’s just “practice” for this and the next three weeks, with the Orioles again pushing the limits of suck, we’re more than thrilled to have the other team in town back in action.
This will be the debut of the “new look” Ravens. You all know the names by now – no Todd Heap…no Derrick Mason…no Willis McGahee…and no Kelly “Buddy Lee” Gregg. Instead, Ravens fans will have to get used to watching guys like Ed Dickson, Dennis Pitta, Torrey Smith, Tandon Doss, Ricky Williams, and others fight the good fight against the evil forces of the AFC North.
This first game of the 2011 preseason finds B’More traveling just a short distance up Interstate 95 to take on the NFL’s newest “dream team,” the Philadelphia Eagles. The Eagles were far and away the “offseason winners,” adding such big-name free agents as Nnamdi Asomugha, Jason Babin, Vince Young, and others, as well as trading for the likes of Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. With game 1 of the preseason typically being the second-most useless of the four “scrimmage” games (only number 4 has historically been more lackluster), we aren’t likely to see many of those big names for any significant amount of time, which is actually probably not a bad thing. The Ravens’ mostly unproven group of wideouts running around trying to get open against Asomugha, DRC, and Asante Samuel? Not fun. And likely not exactly what the doctor ordered for a very jittery at the moment Ravens nation.
Still, there is plenty of reason to pay close attention on Thursday night. So what should Ravens fans be on the lookout for?
I thought you’d never ask….
One of the Ravens’ biggest weaknesses in 2010 was their offensive line play. Their yards-per-attempt when rushing the ball was down near the bottom of the NFL, and Joe Flacco was sacked 40 times, the most in his three-year career. Moving newly resigned Marshal Yanda back to guard from tackle gives the team an instant upgrade, as does adding free agent fullback Vonta Leach. Still, questions remain.
- Will Michael Oher rebound from his disappointing 2010 campaign and start to become the elite left tackle the Ravens thought they were getting when they chose him in the first round of the 2009 draft? Oher will, first and foremost, need to learn to stop jumping the snap count and killing his team five false start penalty yards at a time.
- How much tread is left on Matt Birk’s tires? The center will miss this game and most – if not all – of the preseason after having an operation on his injured knee. The Ravens’ lost their go-to backup center when Chris Chester took off for Washington a few weeks back, and they have yet to find an adequate replacement. Filling in Thursday will be rookie Ryan Bartholomew. An undrafted rookie center going up against the AFC North’s nose guards? No thank you.
- Who will play right tackle? Third round draft pick Jah Reid has been taking most of the snaps with the first team offense in training camp, but Oneil Cousins and Ramon Harewood will also be in the mix. Reid looks like an absolute monster on the field. Let’s hope that translates to being a serviceable right tackle in his rookie season. Look for the coaching staff to try to get Reid as many snaps as possible this preseason, so they can judge whether or not he is at all ready to stare across the line at LaMarr Woodley on September 11. Reid will probably play the majority of the first half, with Cousins taking over thereafter. John Harbaugh, it should be noted, has stated that Cousins “has the edge” currently.
Wide Receiver/Passing Game
With Joe Flacco scheduled to play a full quarter, we should get at least a few chances to see what, if any, kind of rapport he has been able to develop with his new receiving corps over the past few weeks. At the moment, rookie Torrey Smith seems to have a tenuous hold on the #2 WR position lining up opposite Anquan Boldin, but fellow rookie Tandon Doss has been all the rave of late. Doss is more of an underneath/intermediate receiver along the lines of Boldin or the departed Derrick Mason. With Mason absent from the offense this season, Flacco will have to learn to look for somebody else for his “sure thing” routes. When the Ravens went to Boldin in 2010, he delivered. Unfortunately, he seemed like the forgotten man in the offense much too often. That won’t be the case in 2011 – either from his own team or from opposing defenses. While Boldin will undoubtedly be a focal point of every offensive game plan, the increased attention on him as the only established pass catcher on the team will put all the pressure on the young guys to step up.
It will be very interesting to watch this preseason as Smith, Doss, tight ends Ed Dickson (will not play Thursday) and Dennis Pitta, and receivers further down the depth chart like LaQuan Williams attempt to prove that they can be productive NFL players.
Will the young guys be able to get separation from the Eagles’ very impressive cornerback trio? Will they be able to get off the line against press coverage?
How will Flacco react when his favorite two security blankets from years past – Mason and Todd Heap – are no longer out there for him to throw to? Will we see even MORE check downs to Ray Rice, or will he use that shoulder-cannon that he was blessed with to start putting the ball into his receivers’ chests, even when they appear to be “covered?”
The Ravens appear – at least for the moment – to be serious about this whole “Tyrod Taylor can be our backup” thing.
Ok, Tyrod, let’s see what you can do. The rookie sixth-round pick out of Virginia Tech is scheduled to play around 2.5 quarters in Philly, so he should get PLENTY of time to showcase his talents. Granted, it will be against fellow second- and third-stringers, but Taylor will nonetheless have a golden opportunity to start locking down his position as Joe Flacco’s emergency stand-in/clipboard holder.
Personally, my comfort level of having a rookie sixth-rounder as my team’s insurance policy is a solid -14 on a scale of 1-10.
Don’t turn the game off once the starters go out, Ravens fans. While Flacco is one of only four quarterbacks – along with Phillip Rivers and the Manning brothers – to play in every one of his team’s games since 2008, this is the NFL…and injuries are only a matter of time. Should Flacco go down for a series, a quarter, or – perish the thought – a game or more in 2011, Tyrod Taylor could very well be the one leading the team. Starting Thursday, get a good look at him.
Perhaps the guy I am most excited to watch on Thursday is linebacker Sergio Kindle. The Ravens first overall draft pick (second round) in 2010 missed his entire rookie season after falling down a flight of stairs and fracturing his skull. For a while, it was uncertain whether we would EVER see Kindle wear the purple and black, or any NFL colors for that matter. However, the former Texas Longhorn has apparently healed to his doctors’ satisfaction, and has been participating unhampered in training camp workouts. Now, for the first time in his life, Kindle will step foot on an NFL field, and for the first time nearly two calendar years, he will take the field in a competitive environment.
By all accounts, the second-year pass rush specialist has been a man-child in Owings Mills, impressing his coaches, teammates, and media members alike. Should Kindle start to fulfill some of the promise he showed coming out of Texas, the Ravens’ woes as far as finding a compliment to Terrell Suggs on the other side could very well be a thing of the past. Kindle will not be limited in this first preseason game, and new defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano says he wants to “get him out there, get him on the edge, and let him go.”
We can’t wait to see that either.
While it isn’t nearly as exciting as anything listed above, I’m actually eager to see what Billy Cundiff looks like this year. He tied the modern record for touchbacks last season, and was a HUGE weapon for the Ravens on special teams. This year, however, the rules have changed on him – instead of kicking off from the 30-yard line, kickoffs will now be spotted at the 35.
So, will Cundiff have no problem putting nearly every single one of his kickoffs into the end zone? Or, will former special teams coach John Harbaugh have other plans in mind, such as Cundiff using that strong leg of his to get more hang time on his kickoffs as opposed to distance, so the coverage team can get downfield and tackle the returner at the 10 or 15 yard line?
In the preseason, as the Ravens try to evaluate their roster and find guys who can contribute on special teams, it’s also possible that Harbaugh will have Cundiff purposefully put his kickoffs short, just so the young players have a chance to cover the kicks in game situations.
I’m interested to watch a kicker. Sue me.
Ok, that’s about enough to keep an eye on for me.
How about you, Ravens fans? What are you most interested to see on Thursday night? Anything I missed?