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OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The Ravens concluded their final open practice before their preseason opener with what amounted to little more than an extended walk-through Tuesday, but how much work their starters will receive Thursday night remains to be seen.
Taking on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in their first of four preseason games this month, the Ravens are expected to handle playing time for their starters in a manner similar to past seasons, but coach John Harbaugh chose not to tip his hand with too many specifics following Tuesday’s practice. Based on previews years, key veterans such as Joe Flacco, Ray Rice, Terrell Suggs, and Haloti Ngata will likely see just a series or two of action before giving way to backups.
“We’re not going to play the starters the whole game,” Harbaugh said. “How much we play them remains to be seen. We’ve got a plan.”
Based on past seasons, it’s possible some veterans will be held out entirely as former players such as Ray Lewis and Ed Reed were occasionally rested until the second preseason game, but Harbaugh could view this year differently with significant changes on each side of the ball.
The coach downplayed the possibility of holding out key starters entirely but left himself wiggle room to do so at Raymond James Stadium Thursday night. In last year’s preseason opener in Atlanta, Flacco and the starting offense played into the second quarter after going three-and-out three straight times in the opening period at the Georgia Dome.
“We’ll see. Right now, we’re planning on playing guys,” Harbaugh said. “We need to play, but we’ll see.”
With the Ravens trying to overcome the losses of wide receiver Anquan Boldin and tight end Dennis Pitta as well as the recent hamstring injury to tight end Ed Dickson, Flacco will search for new options on which he can trust that include young receivers such as Tandon Doss and Deonte Thompson as well as newly-signed veteran tight end Visanthe Shiancoe.
The quarterback has credited the work of these new targets in practice but downplayed the significance of the first preseason game in trying to answer question marks in the passing attack, acknowledging that he doesn’t expect to see extensive action against Tampa Bay.
“You get used to being back out there and being in and getting hit,” Flacco said. “I haven’t been hit since Feb. 3, so my neck will be sore for a little bit after I get hit for the first time. It always gets you going when you get hit for that first time. It reminds you that you play football.”
Thursday will also mark the first live-game look at a revamped defense that has shown plenty of versatility in practices and looks to have the potential to be better than last year’s unit that finished 17th in yards allowed and tied for 12th in points allowed.
The starting defense could feature up to six new starters, meaning the preseason will be the opportune time to iron out miscommunication as well as build cohesiveness. Flacco was complimentary of the defense on Tuesday, labeling them as “pretty darn good” and complimenting veteran inside linebacker Daryl Smith for the way he’s run the defense in practices since being added in early June.
“It’s starting to gel, but we haven’t played in a football game yet,” defensive end Chris Canty said. “We need to go out there and compete against another football team. Play at game speed [and] at game tempo and go through that process. I think we’ve had enough of hitting each other around here. We’re ready to go hit somebody else.”
Of course, Thursday will represent only one snapshot of the work put in during the offseason and the first two weeks of camp, but it provides an early litmus test for veterans as well as an opportunity for others to improve their chances to land starting spots or put themselves on the radar for 53-man roster consideration.
Ultimately, it’s the next significant step in moving closer to games that actually count in less than a month.
“The first preseason game is really just to get out there [in a game setting],” Flacco said. “Hopefully have a couple good series and be very polished and prove to yourself that the practice is paying off.”