For the first time since coming up short in the AFC Championship in Pittsburgh last January, the Ravens will take the field at M&T Bank Stadium in their preseason opener against the Washington Redskins on Thursday night.
While doubts surround the wide receiver position and an elite defense adjusts to a new coordinator at the helm, expectations run high for a team that finished 11-5 a year ago under first-year coach John Harbaugh. Second-year quarterback Joe Flacco will look to build upon a remarkable rookie season that included two road playoff victories and is expected to take a larger role in the offensive game plan.
Thursday will be the first—albeit small—step in gauging Flacco’s progression from rookie to incumbent starter.
“In the preseason, I want [Flacco] to throw completions,” offensive coordinator Cam Camerson said. “That could be up the field [or] underneath. I want to see completions inside the numbers, up the field, sideline to sideline. That’s what we’re going to try to do this preseason. For us to improve our offense, we’ve got to throw the football better. Obviously, it starts with the quarterback.”
It will be difficult to get an accurate picture of the passing offense considering the injuries at the wide receiver position. Starting wideout Mark Clayton (hamstring) will not play, and Derrick Mason (dislocated finger) and Demetrius Williams (hamstring) are questionable for the preseason opener. These injuries could mean newcomer Kelley Washington and second-year camp standout Justin Harper will line up in the starting offense—not exactly a duo that will strike fear in an opposing secondary.
Coupled with the injuries at receiver is a battered offensive line. Center Matt Birk, guard Chris Chester, and rookie tackle Michael Oher are the only sure bets to play Thursday as tackle Jared Gaither (trapezius) and guard Ben Grubbs (ankle) have recently battled injuries and are questionable. Guard Marshal Yanda has made great progress in returning from a horrific knee injury last season, but the team plans to bring Yanda along slowly in the preseason.
These factors likely mean a conservative approach from the Ravens’ offense against Washington. The team figures to use a heavy dose of Ray Rice and Willis McGahee and plenty of max-protect blocking schemes in the passing game.
“It’s an opportunity to keep growing as a football team and growing as individual players,” coach John Harbaugh said. “We’re not game-planning for the Redskins. They’re not game-planning for us. We’re just going to come out and run our basic stuff—see how guys play, how they play together and how they execute.”
Of course, the first preseason game is hardly the time to open up the playbook, so a conservative game plan is not a poor approach, but what should we expect from new defensive coordinator Greg Mattison’s defense?
Much of the same, apparently.
Pointing to the depth of the defensive line, Mattison suggests we’ll see less blitzing than what we saw for years with Rex Ryan’s defenses. The return of Kelly Gregg will bolster an already impressive line that includes Haloti Ngata, Trevor Pryce, and Justin Bannan. The biggest question will be whether this group can pressure the quarterback without the aid of blitzing—something Ngata and Gregg have not done consistently in the past.
“Our philosophy is we think that this year we can play base,” Mattison said. “You know, I feel like we’ve got the players that if they play like they can—and they will—you don’t have to be real exotic all the time. You should be able to get pressure with a four-man front, and with our secondary [and] the way they’re practicing, you feel confident that we should be able to cover people without bringing overloads and pressures all the time.”
The defense will be without linebacker Terrell Suggs (heel) and may not have Pryce (foot) and safety Ed Reed—whose status for the preseason is unknown as he battles the same shoulder and neck issue from last season. Cornerback Domonique Foxworth (former Maryland Terp and Western Tech grad) has had an impressive training camp and will be expected to play at a high level after signing a four-year, $28 million contract to join the hometown team.
While most football fans tend to focus on the offense and defense, the Ravens’ kicking situation might be the most intriguing story of the preseason. With Matt Stover currently a free agent and not a part of the Ravens’ plans, the organization now looks for a placekicker for the first time in its 14-year history.
Last season’s kickoff specialist Steve Hauschka and rookie Graham Gano will compete for the job, and both players have impressed during training camp. However, the Ravens will tell you the competition will ultimately be decided by how well each performs in the four preseason games.
The Ravens plan to use Hauschka in the first half for all kicking duties, with Gano kicking in the second half.
Regardless of the likely conservative nature of the preseason opener, players are eager to take a break from the rigors of training camp and compete against another NFL team. It’s the first step in building upon a promising 2008 season.
“I’m definitely excited,” Rice said. “Football is football. If you get out there and see another color and don’t get excited, I don’t think you should be playing this sport. I’m excited just to get out there again.”