Ravens-Panthers preseason primer: Five players to watch

August 21, 2013 | Luke Jones

Ravens-Panthers preseason primer: Five players to watch

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After witnessing disappointing performances in each of the Ravens’ first two preseason games, all eyes will be on the starting offense in the all-important third summer contest treated as the “dress rehearsal” for the season opener.

Most starters are expected to play the entire first half with some being pulled a little earlier and others receiving action in the third quarter against the Carolina Panthers in a nationally-televised contest on Thursday night. Much attention will be paid to the wide receiver position where the Ravens have been unable to find trustworthy options beyond third-year wideout Torrey Smith to this point in the summer.

The Ravens also hope to gain further clarity in the competition for the starting center position between Gino Gradkowski and A.Q. Shipley after each started a game with the first-team unit in the first two weeks.

“This is going to be important. It’s going to be important the way we play,”  said coach John Harbaugh, who labeled last week’s first-half performance as being as poor as any he had seen in his six years in Baltimore. “We want to win every game, and I really am proud of the way our guys have found ways to win. But we also want to play well, and that means every little thing we look at, whether it’s run blocking or run defense or the way we make checks and adjustments, the decisions we make at quarterback. We want to play good, solid football.”

Thursday marks the sixth time the Ravens and Carolina have met in a preseason contest with Baltimore holding a 4-1 advantage. However, the Panthers enjoy a 3-1 edge in regular-season meetings despite the Ravens winning the last meeting between these teams in 2010.

The Ravens will see three familiar faces on the Panthers roster as safety Haruki Nakamura, defensive tackle Dwan Edwards, and quarterback Derek Anderson all spent time in Baltimore to begin their respective careers.

Under Harbaugh, the Ravens are 15-7 in the preseason and have won 14 of their last 18 exhibition contests. Baltimore is 42-27 in all-time preseason play, winning eight of its last nine played at M&T Bank Stadium.

Unofficial (and largely speculative) injury report

The Ravens are not required to produce an injury report like they do for regular-season games, but I’ve offered my best guess on what the injury report would look like if one were to be released.

Most of the players ruled to be out will come as no surprise, but the status of a few will be in question. Cornerback Lardarius Webb and right guard Marshal Yanda have begun practicing on a full basis in recent days as Harbaugh described each as having a good chance to play in the third preseason game of the summer, but no decision had been made as of the final day of media availability this week.

Again, this is not an official injury report released by the Ravens:

OUT: TE Ed Dickson (hamstring), WR Deonte Thompson (foot), LB Jameel McClain (neck), OL Ryan Jensen (foot), DE Kapron Lewis-Moore (knee), TE Dennis Pitta (hip)
DOUBTFUL: LB Adrian Hamilton (wrist)
QUESTIONABLE: G Marshal Yanda (shoulder), CB Lardarius Webb (knee)
PROBABLE: OL Ramon Harewood (knee), LB Bryan Hall (hamstring), RB Bernard Pierce (knee), WR Marlon Brown (knee), RB Anthony Allen (undisclosed)

Five players to watch Thursday night

1. S Matt Elam

The first-round pick has chased veteran James Ihedigbo in the battle at strong safety all summer, but Elam appeared to close the gap last week, receiving some extensive time with the starting unit in addition to playing in sub packages. The hard-hitting safety finished with six tackles, including one for a loss, and has shown an impressive nose for the football throughout the summer.

Secondary coach Teryl Austin acknowledged Elam is still learning the finer intricacies of the Baltimore defense, but the Ravens aren’t at all unhappy with the 32nd overall pick of April’s draft. He may not start Week 1, but that’s probably a bigger credit to the play of Ihedigbo than an indictment on Elam’s development so far.

2. WR Aaron Mellette

The rookie from Elon has two touchdown catches on two targets in the preseason and is slowly climbing the depth chart to the point where he’s received extensive reps with the first-team offense over the last week of practices, which is both a compliment to him and a commentary on the alarming state of the wide receiver unit. At 6-foot-2 and 217 pounds, Mellette certainly has the size to play in the NFL and he’s shown more toughness in recent weeks to make catches in traffic in both practices and games.

He doesn’t fit the profile of a receiver who will line up in the slot, but Mellette is certainly putting himself in prime position to grab a spot on the 53-man roster. If he can be productive working with Joe Flacco and the starters on Thursday night, the Ravens might be looking at Mellette as a real contributor sooner rather than later.

3. C Gino Gradkowski

Gradkowski appeared to gain some separation last week after a disappointing outing from Shipley with the starting offensive line, but this battle is still a little too close to predict who will definitely be lining up with the first team against the Denver Broncos on Sept. 5. It appears that Gradkowski received more reps with the starters this week, which could be an indication of who the Ravens are leaning toward right now.

Neither player has risen significantly above the other, but Gradkowski has been steadier in the first two preseason games and was a fourth-round pick a year ago with the sole thought of becoming the heir apparent to the retiring Matt Birk. The biggest question is whether Gradkowski or Shipley is big enough to hold up against the beefier defensive tackles in the league, but the impressive guard combination of Yanda and Kelechi Osemele certainly quell concerns in that department.

4. FB Kyle Juszczyk

The Harvard product got off to a slow start during camp and virtually became a forgotten man after the return of Vonta Leach, but the Ravens have been using Juszczyk in more creative ways over the last week or two of practice, occasionally lining him up at tight end and even putting him in the slot. He’s shown consistent hands and could be viewed as a third tight end and H-back if offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell is willing to be creative with the fourth-round selection.

Juszczyk’s work on special teams might be his best opportunity to see playing time in his rookie season and the Ravens are using him in all phases of Jerry Rosburg’s units. He is also working as the lead blocker on the kickoff return team, which could spell trouble for Anthony Allen’s security on the 53-man roster if the Ravens prefer newcomer Delone Carter or Bobby Rainey for the No. 3 running back job.

5. TE Dallas Clark

The 34-year-old tight end has caught nearly everything thrown his way in practice and has looked much like the player who used to torment the Ravens as a member of the Indianapolis Colts years ago, but we’ve yet to see him in live-game action. Clark looks smaller than his listed 6-foot-3 height and 252-pound weight — but with apologies to Ed Dickson, who is more of a straight-line route runner — he might be the best option the Ravens have in trying to replicate Dennis Pitta’s role in the offense.

The Ravens plan to use Clark and veteran slot receiver Brandon Stokley extensively in Thursday’s preseason game to see if they can be the elixir for their woes in the passing game. If not, concerns will only grow with the regular-season opener just two weeks away.

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