(Updated: Wednesday 8:05 a.m.)
Much anticipation exists for the Ravens’ preseason opener in Atlanta on Thursday night, but don’t expect too many surprises in how coach John Harbaugh handles the first game of the summer.
As is typically the case, you can expect little more than a cameo appearance from most starters.
“It will be a standard first preseason game concept, so we’ll be looking at anywhere from a certain set number of plays to about a quarter, maybe a quarter-plus for some of the starters,” Harbaugh said. “That’s kind of what we’re targeting, but not everybody is on exactly the same schedule. Some guys won’t play at all. Some of the more senior veterans guys won’t play at all by design.”
Harbaugh is likely referring to 37-year-old linebacker Ray Lewis and 33-year-old safety Ed Reed, who have occasionally sat out the first preseason game in past years. It would be surprising to see either defensive star for more than a series if they do take the field against the Falcons.
The Ravens will also be missing a number of players due to injuries as 13 members of the 90-man preseason roster sat out Tuesday’s practice, including center Matt Birk, cornerback Jimmy Smith, wide receiver Jacoby Jones, and defensive end Arthur Jones. Unlike the regular season and playoffs, NFL teams are not required to release an injury report during the preseason.
“The guys who you didn’t see out here [at Tuesday's practice] won’t be playing in the game,” Harbaugh said.
How the Ravens will handle players who have recently returned to the practice field remains more of a mystery.
Linebacker Courtney Upshaw practiced on a limited basis Tuesday for the first time since July 28 but is not expected to play. Harbaugh and the coaching staff must also decide whether to play defensive linemen Haloti Ngata and Pernell McPhee and offensive tackle Bryant McKinnie. All three returned to practice late last week but didn’t crank up their respective workloads until Monday.
McKinnie told WNST.net Wednesday morning that he will play against the Falcons, explaining that he needs the reps to get into better football shape. The Ravens may be forcing McKinnie into action as they try to evaluate their left tackle position, but they are more likely to be cautious with the three-time Pro Bowl selection Ngata. In the past, Harbaugh has preferred previously-injured players to stack a number of consecutive practices before playing in preseason games.
“We’ll decide by Thursday, but that would be the thought,” Harbaugh said. “They probably need to practice a little more. [Upshaw's] been out for over a week, so we probably want to get him practice before we play him.”
Quarterback Joe Flacco will likely play a couple series, but that will depend on the number of plays and flow of the game in the first quarter. In last season’s preseason opener, the 27-year-old played two series, completing 3 of 6 passes for 60 yards in the Ravens’ 13-6 loss to Philadelphia.
It’s apparent Flacco isn’t reading too much into the importance of the first preseason game and wants the starting offense to be efficient for however long it might be on the field.
“I haven’t even figured out how long I’m playing yet,” said Flacco, who labeled Thursday’s game as little more than a warmup. “We’ll see, but hopefully my expectations will be we get the ball, whether it’s to open the game or once they turn the ball over on downs or whatever happens, and we go down and score a touchdown, and then that will be a good day.”
Of course, the Ravens hope to avoid adding new injuries to their already-extensive infirmary report, but Harbaugh said players cannot change how they play to avoid getting hurt.
To do so would put them at even greater risk, according to the head coach.
“You can’t draw that line; you have to be completely aggressive,” Harbaugh said. “You have to be 100 percent aggressive in order to give yourself the 100 percent best chance not to get hurt. As soon as you start thinking about not getting hurt, that’s when you get caught up in a bad situation.”