Ravens to Watch For In Final Two Tune Ups
The Ravens are halfway through the preseason, two games down, two to go. We have learned a lot about the makeup of the team in two short weeks. I could whittle down the roster to maybe 56 of the 53 guys to make the final cut. But we’ll cross that bridge later. Given what we know, what do we want to see in the next two games that needs to be address before it starts to count? Preseason football is like watching paint dry for some, but I’m awfully glad the Ravens games don’t have to start counting for real next week, if they were to say, shorten preseason to two games and appease the season ticket holders.
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Just how important is preseason game number three? The game where the starters get most of the playing time and the fourth stringers get little to none? In the John Harbaugh era entering its ninth season, the Ravens are 5-3 in said games. All five of the wins came in seasons the Ravens went to the postseason, and two of the three losses came in seasons that ended with the Ravens watching the playoffs at home. The only time the Ravens have lost this game, and went to the postseason, was in year one of the Harbaugh era, 2008. It was actually Joe Flacco, then third string quarterback, who played the entire game against the St. Louis Rams (So long ago the Rams were in St. Louis!). It’s the game that thrust Flacco from third string to starter by default due to injuries and illness by Kyle Boller and Troy Smith. Flacco wasn’t crisp, but it was just the cup of coffee he needed to jump start him for week 1…and the rest is history.
Given the importance, sure to be downplayed by fans and media alike, lets start with the important position of quarterback. How much action will Joe Flacco see this Saturday night when the Detroit Lions come to town? Gerry Sandusky on the Ravens announcing crew had often teased Flacco making his return to the field for this game last weekend in Indianapolis. I would like to see him play at least one quarter. At least with the number ones, against the number ones. I may even like to see him get that first hit out of the way. Everyone will hold their breath until he stands up unharmed. But I’d rather he gets it in now, in front of the home crowd, on the new grass field at the stadium. Get it out of the way now rather than Flacco be flinching or throwing off his back foot in games that count come week 1 with Buffalo and Rex Ryan, who blitzes like there’s no tomorrow.
For game three: Will Joe Flacco debut? Does Flacco need to? How long does Flacco play, if he does? Time will tell, and I don’t think there is a definitive right or wrong answer.
Josh Johnson’s play during the preseason has led to some discussion about the backup quarterback role, currently held by Ryan Mallett. Mallet stands to earn $1.5M this season, with bonuses for playing time that can take him to $2.5M if he plays 10% of the teams snaps. That would be about the equivalent of making one start for a full game, and then some snaps at another point, maybe a couple drives worth. If the backup plays at all, either the Ravens are in a bad spot, or are 14-0 with the home field throughout wrapped up and want to give Flacco a breather for January. Mallett is 17 of 23 for 138 yards, 2 TDs and 1 INT that wasn’t his fault. Josh Johnson could earn a base salary of $855K. He’s posted 19 of 27 for 155 yards and 1 TD. Awfully similar numbers between the two. Unlikely the Ravens keep all three. Do you go with the cheaper option and clear some cap space?
For games three and four: Will one of Ryan Mallett or Josh Johnson run away with the battle that is pretty even right now? All things being equal, who gets chosen if the Ravens keep just one backup?
Moving onto the running backs. No real battle here among the depth chart. It’s Justin Forsett at the top, and a committee approach between Terrance West, Kenneth Dixon and Buck Allen behind them. Lorenzo Taliaferro can’t have a real shot at making this team. Kenneth Dixon has been getting chances returning kicks, so I wouldn’t be surprised to the Ravens keep four RBs on the 53-man if one of them is a return specialist. However, Dixon is shifty in the open field and I’d like to see a healthy dose of both West and Dixon in the first half against the number ones on the Lions defense to see if one can separate himself. I’d really like to see their receiving game on display as that is where Forsett doesn’t excel so much. A good receiving back would be the best compliment to Forsett on third downs. Allen didn’t see his playing time until after West and Dixon did last week.
For games three and four: Expect Dixon to get the most opportunities, especially in game four. Does he separate himself from the pack for the number two job, or will Marc Trestman go with the hot hand, committee approach this season? It wasn’t until a couple games into the regular season of 2014 that Justin Forsett unseated Bernard Pierce as the starter. This battle will go on throughout the year.
Sticking with skill positions, there are two wide-receivers that have not played in the preseason yet. Steve Smith Sr. and Breshad Perriman. Both men also reportedly are cleared to practice. I don’t think anyone is worried about Smith Sr.’s ability to show up when it counts. The 37-year old veteran is more than comfortable out there. No problem if we don’t see him until week 1.
For game three: Breshard Perriman needs to see the field on Saturday if healthy enough to do so. It’d be the next step, if he completes the first step of making it through two consecutive days of practice. Even if he plays in only the 4th quarter just to get a feel for NFL speed before giving him a longer look in game four. This also assures Ravens fans that he actually exists, is a real person, not some mythical creature like a unicorn. We have heard of him, but haven’t seen him.
For games three and four: The battle on the bubble is likely between Michael Campanaro, Jeremy Butler, and Keenan Reynolds. I don’t see a situation where Reynolds makes this team, as much as we want to see the classy servicemen succeed. So we’ll see who brings their hands to these games. Campanaro’s health is always a question, but he’s the front runner when healthy.
The other receivers, the tight ends, looked a while back like a stacked position. But the picture has changed a bit this offseason. The Ravens have six men capable of holding three spots. Ben Watson is a given and like Steve Smith Sr., I don’t need to see much if any of the veteran on Saturday. Crockett Gillmore and Maxx Williams are next. Both of these young men I would like to see compete in the first half against a real defense. Gillmore had a bad drop against Indy and Maxx hasn’t had his name called yet, if I’m not mistaken. Seen him more on special teams. Nick Boyle will serve a 10-game suspension and Darren Waller a four-game suspension so It doesn’t matter what they do really. The question mark has been Dennis Pitta, but the solution maybe simple after hearing that Pitta has a broken finger and is unable to catch passes. So, PUP list him after camp. He’s out for six weeks of the regular season. Reassess the receiving group of the roster at that point. Pitta has missed so much time, what’s six more weeks? This at least gives you three guys who should make the team. Sneak Daniel Brown to the practice squad, and promote Brown if one of the top three go down before Waller, then Pitta can return.
For game three: I’d like to get a really good look at Maxx Williams. Especially if Flacco plays in this one. Maxx probably hasn’t worked with Flacco much in practice being behind Watson and Gillmore. He’s young and possibly a special talent in there. Try to develop him promptly.
The number ones on the offensive line look really good. Ronnie Stanley, the rookie first round pick, is in prime form through two games. I love how he looks out there in all facets. Another rookie in Alex Lewis may have a home at left guard. We saw him play left tackle in game one, with James Hurst at left guard. Lewis was ok, but Hurst next to him made for a disaster and I’m glad to see that plan scrapped for game two. Jeremy Zuttah appears healthy and is a solid center when he is 100%. Marshal Yanda is, you know, the best in the business. Rick Wagner bookending the right side is playing solid as well.
For game three: I want to see this group of Ronnie Stanley (LT), Alex Lewis (LG), Jeremy Zuttah (C), Marshal Yanda (RG) and Rick Wagner (RT) play the entire first half Saturday. Might look scary having two rookies on the left side, but it already looks better than the alternative. Maybe John Urschel can play LG in place of Lewis, but let’s see what Lewis has against the ones. Yanda might not need it, but I want to the the unit at it’s best for a nice chunk of the game. If they are going to mess around and maybe not dress Yanda as a solid veteran, or Zuttah to give him a rest and try out other centers, then don’t even bother put Joe Flacco out there in harms way. I can’t stress enough, do not put Joe Flacco out there if Ryan Jensen and James Hurst are out there too.
While the starting group looks nice, the depth on the line is a problem. John Urschel’s best spot is subbing in at left guard but needs improvement. He can play center, but he cannot make clean snaps to a shotgun set QB consistently. Ryan Jensen would be the sub in for Zuttah at center then, but can play RG in a pinch. Albeit not well. Usually the Ravens will keep eight offensive linemen on the 53-man roster. Three who can play tackle, three who can play guard and two who can play center. Counting along: Stanley, Lewis, Zuttah, Yanda, Wagner, Urschel, Jensen. That’s seven guys who check all the boxes. But the eighth man will likely come down to James Hurst and Vladimir Ducasse.
For game four: Who steps up as the eighth man to join the O-line crew? Vladimir Ducasse was dreadful against Indy. Completely off balance when they ran a stunt and lacked vision to pick up a rusher blowing right by him multiple times. Even worse than Hurst had been. How much time does James Hurst get? Or do they give more time to De’Ondre Wesley and Stephane Nembot looking to get a chance to prove themselves. If none of these four make a really strong case in game four, against third and fourth string talent, then the answer isn’t on this team. Even if they do, the answer may not be on this team if/when injuries occur. But you want to see someone earn it.
Before we get to the defense, allow me to remind you that the best fullback on the team is Kyle Juszczyk and his job is safe.
Onto the defense and what we miss the most. The pass rush. On the edges it will be the stalwart Terrell Suggs, with Elvis Dumervil in the rush package. But Dumervil is not the every down LB. It looks more and more like Albert McClellan is taking over the old Courtney Upshaw role as the edge setter opposite Suggs on the rushing downs. We’ll want to keep a close eye on McClellan to see how he adapts from special teamer with inside linebacker experience, to his new role. Dumervil is off the PUP list and back at practice. Suggs is practicing. But do we need to see the veterans here? I’ll say no. I’ll be more interested to see Matt Judon and Kamalei Correa get the edge rushing duties against Detroit’s number ones. Judon has looked fast against the twos and threes. Certainly a preseason playmaker.
For game three: Let’s see what Matt Judon and Kamalei Correa can do against a very good tackle in Riley Reiff and one of the better O-lineman coming out of the draft in Taylor Decker (Ohio State) on passing downs. Look for Albert McClellan on running downs and if he can be an edge setter.
On the interior of the D-line, we know Brandon Williams is a beast. Other than that, it’s tricky to determine by depth chart who makes it because the Ravens have shown multiple looks this preseason. They’re base is a 3-4 which would normally look like Williams, Timmy Jernigan, Carl Davis up front, with Suggs and another OLB outside the tackles. But we have also seen decent amount of 4-3 alignments where Za’Darius Smith is one of the “4”, like the Pernell McPhee role. Freelance, up on the line but no hand in the dirt. He can rush, drop into coverage, overload a side, no one knows. It looks exotic, but the problem is without Suggs and Dumervil, they aren’t creating problems for the opposing offense. Getting off the field on 3rd down is still an issue. Whether it’s a big stop on a run play, or getting a pass rush to disrupt their passing down, they just don’t have it enough.
For game three: If Suggs and Dumervil play, I want to see much better penetration on the interior when the Lions linemen have to account for those guys. Force the Lions into mistakes. Make a stand on 3rd and short.
Onto the remainder of the front seven, the inside linebackers. C.J. Mosley and Zachary Orr look like you can pencil them in, if not pen them in for starting roles. Orr’s competition is Kamalei Correa, but his versatility puts him at edge rusher more often, especially if you want to give the aging Suggs and Dumervil a few more plays off to stay fresh later in the season. Orr’s other cometition is Arthur Brown. Brown’s time is up. He’s going to finish the preseason, but if he makes the 53-man roster, he’ll be the 53rd man and barring injuries, he’ll be a healthy scratch every week. I have Chris Carter making it before Arthur Brown. Carter has shown more against second teamers than Brown has against third and fourth teamers. Brown is getting looks with the special team unit, but not doing anything to make a name for himself. With the versatility of the line backing group, and the different looks we are getting to see in the preseason, you can get very creative with the depth chart. In years past it was usually four OLBs and five ILBs made it. With McClellan, Correa, maybe even Carter having the ability to play dual roles, I think they can get away with keeping just eight total LBs, plus Za’Darius Smith, who some label an OLB, I label a stand up defensive end/edge rusher.
For game three: I’ll want to pay close attention to C.J. Mosley. He’s the lead dog in the middle coming off a down year, just after after a brilliant rookie season. He’s struggled in coverage and the Lions pose a decent threat to his assignments there. Theo Riddick is a pass catching machine out of the backfield. As far as tight ends go, Detroit is excited to see if Eric Ebron has his breakout season and will be a tough matchup for Mosley. We’ll see if he rises to to occasion. Also looking for Chris Carter to see some snaps while the ones are on the field. Arthur Brown has had enough chances. He should not see the field except on special teams. Game four with the other weak competition should be his audition for other teams.
Last on the defense it’s the secondary. It’s the unit that is the most skeptical. So I want to see everyone compete hard against the pass happy Lions and their solid receivers, led by Golden Tate, Marvin Jones, and a familiar face in Anquan Boldin. Boldin and Eric Weddle may have words for each other after Weddle, then on the Chargers, was de-cleted by a Boldin block on the 4th and 29 Ray Rice converted the kickoff the championship run.
For game three: The Lions WR group is solid, but the Ravens have a size advantage with Jimmy Smith and later in the game Sheldon Price, who showed well in game one. Both standing 6’2”. The tallest Detroit wideout is Marvin Jones at 6’2”. Shareece Wright was a mismatch against the 6’5” and 6’6” Devin Funchess and Kelvin Benjamin in game one against Carolina. Now let’s see if that was size, or technique. I’ll look for Wright needing to step up big and solidify the number two CB spot. Jimmy Smith should be a blanket against these guys and not even challenged by Matt Stafford. We have seen a lot of safety blitzes dialed up in the first two games. We’ll look to see if that continues and if help is able to cover when the blitz doesn’t reach the quarterback. All in all, it’s a formidable passing game the Ravens face, for at least a half. Let’s see them shut it down. Jerraud Powers and Kyle Arrington have not looked good thus far. Anthony Levine with his versatility could land a spot in dime packages.
I don’t want to leave out the wolfpack. So I’ll say this. Morgan Cox, Sam Koch, Justin Tucker are no doubt, “it”.
For game three: I hope at home, Justin Tucker gets some chances at field goals from beyond 50 yards. He has really struggled at home from long range over the last two years. Baltimore isn’t known as a tough place to kick. Let’s see him work on it. It’s a little annoying to hear him say he hit from 84 yards while practicing in the Denver thin air. Denver players didn’t buy that and neither do I. It’s a little annoying that a kicker had the power to force the front offices hand to give him an extension. Tucker misses more than he makes from 50 yards, in the stadium he plays half his games in. Like to see him improve where it counts. Baltimore plays a lot of close games and every point is critical. Tucker’s getting paid like the one of the best in the league now. Let’s see him live up to it after two years of below league average kicking from long distance.