While the third preseason game is viewed as the dress rehearsal for the regular season, the preseason finale fails to register a pulse in terms of excitement for most observers.
But don’t tell the Ravens it holds no significance, even if most starters aren’t expected to play against the St. Louis Rams on Thursday night. Of the 75 players remaining on the preseason roster, upwards of 20 players are legitimately fighting for roughly 10 spots on the 53-man roster.
For those individuals, an otherwise innocuous preseason game becomes the most significant contest of their lives.
“This is really an important game to the majority of the team, not the minority of the team, because this is a chance for everybody to really get extended time playing — playing very competitively,” defensive coordinator Dean Pees said. “It’s going to be on film for everybody to see, and it’s down to crunch time where everybody is making their team and making their final cuts and their final roster decisions.”
The Ravens haven’t revealed their plans for the first units on Thursday, but history suggests most starters will be standing on the sideline the entire night. Quarterback Joe Flacco hasn’t played in a preseason finale since his rookie season in 2008, and coach John Harbaugh has only played a few starters here and there in the fourth preseason game over the last few years.
Their absence leaves 60 minutes for rookies and fringe players to show the coaching staff why they should be part of the 2012 Ravens.
Entering the preseason as unknowns, rookie free agents such as wide receiver Deonte Thompson, running back Bobby Rainey, and safety Omar Brown have earned consideration for roster spots with strong performances this month. Bubble players will have one more opportunity to leave an impression, which could help them land with the Ravens or one of the other 31 NFL teams when final cuts are made by 9 p.m. on Friday night.
Many debate the number of players teams will keep at each position, but the Ravens don’t construct their roster with the idea of having a set number of receivers, offensive linemen, or cornerbacks. Instead, they are examining how individuals can help them in as many ways as possible.
“Numbers? I’ve never gotten caught up in the numbers game,” offensive coordinator Cam Cameron said. “We believe you just keep your best 53. You [also] have to see how you are going to carve out your [eight-man] practice squad.”
A critical factor in awarding the final spots on the roster is identifying players with a unique ability to play special teams. While Thompson and Rainey have stood out at their respective positions, their ability to contribute in the return game and other special teams units has transformed them from strictly bubble players to ones all but assured to earn spots on Friday.
Players with similar abilities at their regular positions who fail to distinguish themselves on special teams often find themselves on the outside looking in if they don’t earn a starting job.
“I think it’s always the case in any team where you get to the point where you are picking your final 53 and you’re not necessarily picking your starters,” special teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg said. “Special teams must always factor in that, because you want to be strong up and down your lineup.”