The Ravens ramp up their summer preparations for the 2012 season by traveling to Atlanta to take on the Falcons in their preseason opener Thursday night.
Meeting the Falcons for the ninth time ever in the preseason, the Ravens are 5-3 all-time and defeated Atlanta by a 21-7 margin in their preseason finale last season. The two teams have met four times in the regular season, with the series tied 2-2.
Baltimore has won 10 of its last 12 preseason games, but the Ravens will naturally only play their starters a brief time as coach John Harbaugh labeled it a “standard” plan for the opening preseason contest. Most starters will play roughly a quarter and the Ravens have not game-planned in any way for the Falcons specifically.
Even with the brief cameo, quarterback Joe Flacco and the starting offense hope to play efficiently before calling it a night roughly midway through the first half.
“It’s all about timing and execution,” Harbaugh said. “How crisp do we play? How do we execute under pressure? How do the guys take that execution from a practice environment and take it to a game environment against another team in a live-type situation? It’s all about executing our offense.”
A story that may go overlooked by most fans Thursday night will be who is officiating the game at the Georgia Dome. The National Football League is currently using replacement officials after locking out its regular officials when labor negotiations were going nowhere in early June. Reports suggest the league is prepared to begin the season with replacement officials.
Some concerns have been raised over the competency of replacement officials and how it might impact player safety, but most players have had little to say about the labor dispute and the Baltimore coach took the high road when asked about the situation earlier this week.
The league has put the replacement officials through extensive training and candidates have officiated at the collegiate level or for other professional leagues.
“We don’t even think about that,” Harbaugh said. “The refs will be fine. They will be what they are. Everybody is going to try to do their best. Our guys have plenty of things to worry about besides the officiating.”
Unofficial (and largely speculative) injury report
The Ravens are not required to release an injury report like they do for regular-season games, but I’ve offered my best guess at what the injury report would look like if there were one.
Harbaugh revealed that any player who didn’t practice Tuesday would not play in the game and players who have recently been held out of extensive practice due to injury may not play either. Older veterans may also be included in the list of inactives, which could mean linebacker Ray Lewis and safety Ed Reed sit out the preseason opener.
Again, this is not meant to be an official injury report:
OUT: C Matt Birk (back), DE Arthur Jones (hip), CB Jimmy Smith (back), LB Josh Bynes (back), RB Bernard Pierce (hamstring), LB Dannell Ellerbe (hamstring), LB Darryl Blackstock (groin), WR Patrick Williams (leg), TE Dennis Pitta (hand), OL Jah Reid (calf), LB Terrell Suggs (Achilles tendon), WR David Reed (knee)
DOUBTFUL: LB Courtney Upshaw (shoulder), WR Tandon Doss (hamstring)
QUESTIONABLE: WR Jacoby Jones (undisclosed), DE Pernell McPhee (knee), DT Haloti Ngata (hamstring), OT Bryant McKinnie (back)
PROBABLE: G Marshal Yanda (limited Monday and Tuesday)
Five players to watch Thursday night
1. LT Bryant McKinnie
The 32-year-old lineman told WNST.net Wednesday morning that he will not only play but receive more reps than usual in the preseason opener in an effort to get into better football shape after missing the start of training camp with a lower back injury. McKinnie has worked mostly with the second-team offensive line as Michael Oher continues to receive most of the first-unit reps on the left side.
If McKinnie has a good showing against the Falcons, he’ll likely find his way back into his starting spot sooner rather than later as the Ravens will want to build some continuity with the offensive line. However, if he struggles, this competition could play out a little longer, especially if rookie right tackle Kelechi Osemele continues to impress as he has during training camp.
2. LB Albert McClellan
With Upshaw unlikely to play, McClellan could find himself making the start at outside linebacker along with Paul Kruger. Last season, the former practice squad member established himself as one of the team’s best special teams players and even filled in admirably at inside linebacker when Ray Lewis and Dannell Ellerbe were sidelined late in the season.
McClellan could at least put himself in the conversation with Upshaw for a starting spot if he can take advantage of his opportunities to work with the starting defense. Upshaw’s weight is still higher than it should be, and he’s just coming back from a sprained shoulder that sidelined him for over a week.
Upshaw clearly has the higher upside, but McClellan has had a strong start to training camp and his versatility could earn him some significant time defensively this season.
3. LB Nigel Carr
The rookie from Alabama State has earned plenty of publicity early in training camp, but he needs to turn in a strong performance on Thursday with Ellerbe unlikely to play with a hamstring injury.
Much like Ellerbe, Carr is considered a “thumper” and has drawn praise from the coaching staff and media alike, but he will need to show more discipline and the ability to drop into pass coverage to earn stronger consideration for a roster spot. Ellerbe figures to see action in the nickel package and is a good backup despite questions about his work ethic and durability.
If Lewis is also held out of Thursday’s game, Carr may even see some time with the starting defense, and you can’t ask for more than that as an undrafted rookie. The 6-foot-2, 247-pound linebacker will need to prove he belongs, however.
4. RB Anthony Allen
Expected to battle the rookie Pierce for the backup running back job behind Ray Rice, Allen has found plenty of reps with the 2012 third-round pick sidelined for much of camp with a hamstring injury. Instead, Allen has seen more competition from diminutive rookie free agent Bobby Rainey at running back.
Allen is a physical runner and impressed as a seventh-round rookie last preseason, but he doesn’t possess great vision, which may limit him to short-yardage and goal-line situations. However, he can gain separation from Pierce in their competition with a strong performance against the Falcons.
Rice will likely play no more than a series or two, meaning Allen will receive touches with the first-string offense as well as the second unit. The Georgia Tech product must secure the football and recognize running lanes in the Ravens’ zone blocking schemes.
5. K Justin Tucker
Tucker has impressed over and over again during the first two weeks of training camp, with a 62-yard field goal at M&T Bank Stadium being the highlight in front of 20,000 fans. As good as incumbent kicker Billy Cundiff has been during training camp, Tucker has created a serious competition by being even better.
It will be interesting to see if Tucker brings the same swagger and consistent leg to the Georgia Dome turf with the knowledge that kicks in preseason games will undoubtedly hold more weight in the eyes of Harbaugh and special teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg. Considering the Ravens have now had a kicking competition in three of their last four seasons, it’s important to remember kicks in practice only mean so much.
The Ravens will likely alternate quarters or halves for the two kickers, so you’d expect the veteran Cundiff to handle duties in the first quarter, but many eyes will be on the rookie from Texas when he gets an opportunity to line up against the Falcons.