While Ravens fans undoubtedly are excited for tonight’s preseason opener against the Washington Redskins, maintaining enthusiasm for an exhibition game can be difficult. Despite paying regular season ticket prices,—and that’s another issue entirely—we’ll likely see Ray Lewis, Joe Flacco, and the rest of the starters for a quarter at most.
And let’s face it; few will remember the outcome of this one by this time next month.
Keys to the Game
The ultimate goal of any preseason game is to keep players healthy. The Ravens are already dealing with injuries at wide receiver and the offensive line, so they won’t want to add to the list.
The team certainly wants to play well in their first live-game action but not at the expense of any key players. Regardless of the game’s outcome, coming out of it healthy will be a victory in itself.
Expect a vanilla game plan on both sides of the ball.
2. Establish the run
While Ray Rice appears to have the inside track at the running back position, the Ravens will continue to use a by-committee approach with Rice, Willis McGahee, and fullback Le’Ron McClain sharing carries.
Rice will get the start but expect offensive coordinator Cam Cameron to give some carries to McGahee and McClain with the first team. The coaching staff certainly wants to improve the passing game in 2009, but this team will clearly maintain their run-first approach this season.
Pay attention to rookie Michael Oher’s work at right tackle. His run blocking has been very impressive during training camp, so we’ll see how well it carries over against the Redskins.
Cameron has emphasized a desire to see the quarterbacks complete more passes than last season, whether it’s a 25-yard strike or finding a running back in the flat.
Depending on who’s available on the offensive line and at wide receiver, expect the Ravens to use plenty of two-tight end sets and maximum protection to keep Flacco upright. The offense wants to establish a good tempo, so look for more conservative passing early and perhaps a shot or two down the field before Flacco exits after a quarter.
With the Ravens’ top three receivers banged up, tonight is a golden opportunity for Kelley Washington, Justin Harper, and Marcus Smith to establish themselves as viable options for Flacco. L.J. Smith will also need to have a good night, as Todd Heap is battling tightness in his lower back.
4. Defensive Intensity
Ravens fans are anxious to see new coordinator Greg Mattison’s imprint on a defense that ranked second overall in 2008. With the departure of Bart Scott to the New York Jets, Tavares Gooden is the top candidate to take his place next to Ray Lewis.
Gooden flies to the football and is a tremendous athlete, but he needs to prove he can stay healthy. After missing most of 2008 with a hip injury and undergoing sports hernia surgery in the offseason, he’s pushed through some soreness in training camp but has performed very well as a member of the starting defense.
Ray Lewis probably won’t play much longer than a series, but he’ll undoubtedly have his defense flying to the football in the early stages of the game. Even with Mattison’s intention to run more base defense, the Ravens will strive to pressure Jason Campbell and the other Washington quarterbacks.
5 (really 6) Players to Watch
1. Justin Harper
The 2008 seventh-round pick has been one of the early stars in Westminster this summer after spending his rookie season on injured reserve. Harper has beaten just about every defensive back on the roster for long completions at some point during training camp, but performing in game situations is another story.
Harper needs to prove he can catch the ball in traffic, as he has a tendency of trying to make catches with his body instead of his hands.
2. David Hale
After being regarded as a disappointment in his rookie season, Hale has proven to be one of the most versatile offensive linemen on the team during camp, lining up at center, guard, and even tight end during tackle-eligible plays.
Hale will definitely see some reps with first unit but will probably play a good portion of the game. Considering the Ravens will probably keep three reserves for the regular season, a versatile—and effective—Hale would be a valuable depth guy to have
3. Lardarius Webb
The Nicholls State rookie has been very impressive in Westminster, both in the secondary and as a kick returner. He shows good football instincts and is very active in the special teams units.
Some members of the organization view Webb as a potential shutdown corner in the future, so we’ll get our first look at the defensive back in a game situation. He has one of the key intangibles that make a quality cornerback—resiliency. When he has been beaten in coverage during camp, he shakes it off and responds by making a strong defensive play almost immediately thereafter.
4. Dannell Ellerbe
Perhaps the most impressive undrafted rookie on the roster, Ellerbe has received some first-team reps at linebacker when Gooden missed practice last week. His draft status plummeted last season due to a knee injury at the University of Georgia.
Ellerbe was a second-team All-SEC player in 2007 and led the Bulldogs in tackles. He brings an impressive football intellect for a rookie and is a hard hitter in the traditional inside linebacker mold.
He and Jameel McClain are the top candidates behind Gooden in the inside linebacker competition.
5. Steve Hauschka/Graham Gano
All eyes will be on both kickers tonight as they get their first true test in the battle to replace Matt Stover as the Ravens placekicker. Both have performed well during camp, with Hauschka likely holding the slight edge at this point.
Hauschka will handle all kicking duties in the first half with Gano auditioning in the second half of tonight’s game.