The Baltimore Ravens looked impressive in their first preseason game as they trounced the Tampa Bay Buccaners 44-16.
While the first two preseason games largely serve as tuneups for the ever-so important third preseason, here are a few players to watch in tonight’s contest at M&T Bank Stadium as the Atlanta Falcons comes to town to take on the 2012 defending Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens.
1. Cornerback Jimmy Smith
The second preseason game means a few more series’ for the top units on the respective depth charts. Ravens cornerback Jimmy Smith hasn’t exactly been all that impressive during his first two years with the franchise and this year has been pegged as the year he takes a leap of faith to garner more playing time. Smith possesses the physicality needed for the press coverage game, but has struggled turning and running with quality receivers early in his career. He will certainly face two top-notch wideouts Thursday in Falcons wide receivers Julio Jones and Roddy White. Smith is vying for that second starting spot opposite cornerback Lardarius Webb with fellow cornerback Corey Graham, but Smith still seems a little behind the curve in being able to separate himself from the pack. Given that he is also facing a quality quarterback in Matt Ryan for the Falcons, his ability to read the quarterback’s eyes will be tested tonight. With the first team probably playing no more than a quarter, his reps against top guys will be at a premium.
2. Wide receiver Jacoby Jones
Somewhat similar to the previously mentioned player, wide receiver Jacoby Jones will have to take advantage of any opportunities in front of him Thursday night. The 29-year-old is staring at a golden opportunity that will probably never come again in his career — a chance to start as a No. 2 wide receiver. In the limited action he saw against Tampa Bay last Thursday, the former Houston Texan reminded fans why coaches in the past have had trouble trusting the wideout’s hands and ability to perform at his position offensively. Sure, he is still a dynamite returner in both the kick and punt game, but with the Ravens being already thin at his position, Jones has to step up. Hands and athletic ability cannot be coached, but crisper routes and being able to gain separation on all routes in the route tree — other than streak or fly patterns — could propel Jacoby into being a more significant contributor this season.
3. Center A.Q. Shipley
The center position for the Baltimore Ravens still remains up in the air as centers Gino Gradkowski and A.Q. Shipley have been splitting reps at practice almost 50-50 with the first team offense. Gradkowski started last week and Shipley gets his shot this week to showcase to the coaching staff why he should be the best man for the job. The former Penn State Nittany Lion started five games for the Indianapolis Colts last season for a primarily lackluster offensive line that protected rookie quarterback Andrew Luck. He has the experience advantage over Gradkowski, even though it is only a few NFL games. Both haven’t dominated to separate themselves, so it will be interesting to see how the former practice squad player fares against top competition. Both players also have been criticized for their size and strength, but the most intriguing aspect of the center position that should be worth watching is the way that both of these guys call out the signals along the offensive line. The center is the quarterback of that unit and it is vital that the correct blocking schemes are set up for quarterback Joe Flacco. Gradkowski didn’t fair well against the Falcons last preseason so it will be interesting to see if Shipley can make the Ravens forget about the incumbent center.