Previewing the Baltimore Ravens' Preseason Week 1 Game vs. Falcons
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Though the first preseason game of the year is more of a time for player evaluation and the development of certain plays rather than a full-tilt, must-win affair, there are still reasons to pay close attention to this contest beyond it simply being the first time we'll see the Ravens on the field since the AFC Championship Game.
Here are three things to watch for when the Ravens face the Falcons on Thursday, even if you're not the most die-hard of fans.
Watch the Linebackers
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With Terrell Suggs lost for at least part of the season with a torn Achilles' tendon and Jarret Johnson gone in free agency, the Ravens will be looking for new linebackers to step up.
Rookie Courtney Upshaw, who returned to practice yesterday after missing the last seven, isn't guaranteed to play on Thursday, though the possibility is far greater now that he's back on the field.
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Paul Kruger, however, will be there with the starting defense and will likely line up both in Suggs' and Johnson's spots at rush and Sam backers, respectively, in order to see how well he can handle being a full-time pass-rusher and whether he's improved his technique against the run.
Sergio Kindle, who has finally been healthy enough to fully participate in training camp this year, will also be rotated in and out with the starters and could even see more than the expected one or two series the starters will play in order to get a better idea of his development.
It's a tall order trying to replace the run-stuffing of Johnson and the every-down fierceness of Suggs, but the Ravens must find the best combination of linebackers to approximate their effectiveness. Thursday's outing against the Falcons will be our—and the team's—first real indication on how well this is going.
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Center Matt Birk will not be participating in Thursday's game, with rookie Gino Gradkowski and second-year player Justin Boren replacing him.
This will be our first chance to see what the Ravens' situation regarding offensive-line depth really looks like. Rookie Kelechi Osemele will get time at right tackle, either with the starters or the second team (or both), depending on Bryant McKinnie's status.
Left guard Jah Reid also won't likely play, as he's nursing a calf injury, so it will be up to newly signed free agent Bobbie Williams to hold down that job with the starters.
Though the Ravens have a lot of versatility in their crop of offensive linemen, they still do lack specialized depth, and injuries both great and small have dwindled their numbers in training camp.
Pay close attention to players like right guard Tony Wragge and left tackle Ramone Harewood, as there may come a time during the regular season when they will have to join the starters.
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How well the on-the-margins Ravens wide receivers perform in preseason games will better determine who wins a roster spot and who doesn't, more so than how they do in training camp. So it's important to see which of these players have made strides and which haven't, especially in a year when the Ravens would be well served to open up their passing game.
With the first-team offense getting only a drive or two, the real evaluations will come later in the game, with Tyrod Taylor and Curtis Painter throwing the passes. Vying for spots are Tandon Doss, LaQuan Williams, Deonte Thompson, Devin Goda, Patrick Williams, Tommy Streeter, Logan Payne and Dorian Graham.
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Though Doss and Williams are favorites in terms of experience, down performances during the preseason could cost them their roster spots. Streeter, Thompson and Goda in particular have looked good during training camp, and if that continues during the preseason, the two second-year veterans will have to fight that much harder.
Remember that preseason games aren't judged on who wins and who loses, but on who looks the most prepared and complete overall heading into the regular season.
That's hardest to tell in Week 1, when certain players are being handed certain plays to test their readiness, others are being tried out to see if they still need tweaking, and specific matches and mismatches are set up to see how players can handle unexpected situations.
So approach Thursday's game with the same eye as the Ravens' coaches—evaluative, a little cynical and without images of Lombardi Trophies dancing in your head—and you'll be able to learn quite a bit about some of the Ravens' lesser-known, hidden talents.
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