Baltimore Ravens: 4 Up, 4 Down Before Preseason Week 3
Thursday, Aug 23 means the all-important third preseason game is here for the Baltimore Ravens.
The 2012 preseason has been huge for the Ravens, who came into the year with a lot of question marks despite making it to the AFC Championship game a year ago.
The defense also has some issues. Getting to the passer has been difficult as there is a lot of uncertainty at linebacker in Dean Pees' 3-4 scheme.
Furthermore, kickoff and punt coverage teams have been poor, raising questions about head coach John Harbaugh and special teams coach Jerry Rosburg's effectiveness in handling the special teams despite their strong backgrounds in that area.
Joe Flacco is the primary bright spot, with his strong arm looking stronger and his confidence at an all-time high.
This is what preseason is for, working out the kinks and testing your players to answer the big questions about your team.
Some have responded well to these tests, and are firmly on the up, while others find themselves in or close to Coach Harbaugh's doghouse, and are headed down on the totem pole.
Though this is a historically friendly and non-career threatening doghouse, read on for who the coaches love, who may be finding residence in the doghouse and if anyone is close to a the fate of former cornerback Chris McAlister, who only appeared in six games during Coach Harbaugh's first year on the job.
Up: Kelechi Osemele
One of the most important position battles is at left guard, where the Ravens have several players who are not natural left guards but do have the talent to succeed in the NFL.
The Ravens signed 35-year-old Bobbie Williams, a former right guard, to fill the hole in the event that none of their younger players emerged.
One of them has.
Kelechi Osemele's strong play impressed the entire coaching staff and even the typically bitter Baltimore Sun writer Mike Preston, who was enamored with the rookie's ability to block downfield and his dominance of Sergio Kindle.
Though Osemele is a better fit at right tackle because of his long wingspan and size, he is one of the best five linemen the Ravens have and would be an asset to their O-line.
While Oher has the right tackle position locked down and Bobbie Williams deals with a nagging ankle injury, look for Osemele to play at left guard and play well for an improving offense.
Down: Courtney Upshaw
Big things are expected from outside linebacker Courtney Upshaw, the Ravens' top draft pick.
Upshaw, however, has been slow to adapt to the NFL learning curve. A lingering shoulder injury and concerns about his speed off the edge have raised doubts from some in Ravens' nation.
Are these concerns the reason Upshaw fell on draft day?
Possibly. An article in The Baltimore Sun by columnist Kevin Cowherd explains Upshaw's situation and offers an interesting quote on the rookie's play from Coach Harbaugh:
Nothing stood out that I saw. I think he played hard. It's good to get him out there. He needs to play.
Cowherd follows this quote with:
Not exactly a glowing endorsement from the coach, who could usually find something sunny to say about a rookie if he tripped over a blocking sled.
Very true words from Cowherd, as Harbaugh rarely shows displeasure in his young players. He has been tougher on early picks since his arrival, as is the entire organization considering the tradition of excellent first-rounders that have worn a Ravens' uniform.
Though he was taken early in the second-round, the Ravens are treating Upshaw like a first-round pick. Many penciled in Upshaw as the starter once Suggs went down, but Harbaugh has expressed adamantly that players must earn their job.
Second-year linebacker, and former practice squad player, Albert McClellan seems to have the early edge over Upshaw for the rush linebacker spot.
Upshaw should get an extensive look in Thursday's game, as the team hopes for better production from No. 91.
Up: Asa Jackson
With a stellar punt return against the Lions that was called back because of a Nigel Carr holding penalty, Asa Jackson threw himself in the mix to be the team's primary return man.
Jackson showed the ability to stop and start on a dime, and used his quickness to reach the end zone though there were several illegal blocks on the play.
His competition at returner is as follows: Lardarius Webb, Jacoby Jones, LaQuan Williams, Bobby Rainey and Deonte Thompson.
Webb is the team's shutdown corner, so the Ravens would like him to focus on that area of his game more so than returning the ball.
Jones also looks to be the team's best option as the third receiver, so it comes down to Jackson, Williams and two impressive undrafted rookies: Rainey and Thompson.
Thompson nearly scored on a kick return, but instant replay showed he stepped out of bounds and a flag on the Ravens for holding turned it into a normal gain.
Rainey and Thompson are both making a case to make the roster at their offensive positions, running back and wide receiver, respectively.
Jackson and the two undrafted players will add a lot of speed and dynamism despite being late round and free agent acquisitions.
It will be interesting to see if Jackson gets an extensive look at defensive back along with returning kicks on Thursday.
Down: Cary Williams
The 2011 preseason was a breakout moment in Cary Williams' career.
With then-rookie first-round pick Jimmy Smith clipping at his heels for a starting job, Williams held off the rookie with stellar physical play at the line of scrimmage.
He looked confident in coverage, and he carried that confidence with him throughout a successful first year as an NFL starter.
Now coming off offseason hip surgery, Williams looks somewhat stiff and tentative getting his hands on receivers.
He, along with Smith, were beaten badly by Julio Jones and Calvin Johnson in the first two weeks of preseason.
Smith is receiving more of the benefit of the doubt, probably because his potential is so great and fans want to see him succeed more so than Williams, who is standing in the way of Smith's rise to stardom.
Either way, Williams should be playing with a chip on his shoulder Thursday night, as he looks to return to his 2011-12 form when he was a nuisance for opposing receivers.
The Ravens are very deep at corner with newcomers Corey Graham and Asa Jackson looking good so far. The competitive Williams would hate to have his starting job ripped away from him.
He should fare better against a lower-tier Jaguars passing attack, despite the fact that Blaine Gabbert has improved tremendously going into his second year.
Up: Bobby Rainey
Coming in to training camp, the Ravens backfield situation was already crowded even with the retirement of Ricky Williams.
The team's best offensive player, Ray Rice, was followed by second-year player Anthony Allen, rookie third-round pick Bernard Pierce and the highly elusive former Miami Hurricane Damien Berry.
The competition amongst the three backups was close, until an undrafted rookie from Western Kentucky came in and stole the show.
Bobby Rainey had a highly successful career at WKU, earning Sun Belt Conference Offensive Player of the Year honors twice in his time there.
He has continued his success in Baltimore, where the shifty back has been able to gain yards after contact and after the catch while also contributing on special teams.
While Thursday's game should settle the backup running back to Ray Rice debate, a good game from Rainey could also settle the third and final back on the roster.
A hard worker who makes up for a smaller 5'8'' frame, Rainey is a John Harbaugh-type player who should be one of the favorites of the coaching staff.
Down: Anthony Allen
Another player who had a tremendous 2011 preseason, Anthony Allen has fallen on a bit of hard luck in 2012.
The emergence of Rainey and wide receiver Deonte Thompson as both returners and potential offensive contributors means some good players will have to get cut.
Allen is currently one of those good players.
He offers very little in the return game, and though he is the only back analysts could consider a short-yardage back on the Ravens, there is little need for a bruising back when fullback Vonta Leach is leading the way.
Leach can turn anyone into a power back, and may get some short yardage carries himself as the offense looks to expand his role.
Though Allen is a strong pass blocker and effective runner, he simply has been outplayed by Rainey in preseason. Running back is always a very competitive position in the NFL, and Allen is about to learn that the hard way.
While competitive, the position also sees its share of injuries, which could help Allen make another roster if things do not work out.
Up: Justin Tucker
The Ravens decided to make things interesting this offseason by adding a rookie kicker to the mix after Billy Cundiff's epic miss that Ravens' fans would not like to revisit.
Though added as an undrafted free agent, Tucker has performed well, going three for three in preseason with a long of 50 yards.
The rookie did have one major mishap, which occurred on a training camp kick that struck Joe Flacco's wife Dana while she was paying attention to their newborn son, Stephen.
Dana Flacco was fine, and Joe gave the rookie some playful ribbing for the mistake, but it remains the only mistake of the rookie's season thus far.
Billy Cundiff has been strong as well, going two for two in the preseason with a long of 44. If Tucker continues to shine, however, it will be hard for the Ravens to let him go when they are dealing with a very sensitive Cundiff issue.
There is no doubt fans will come after Cundiff should he miss a kick this season. Perfection is an unreasonable thing to demand from a kicker, but Baltimore will be expecting it from Cundiff, who has already caused the fans so much pain that they will have him on a very short leash.
Down: Sergio Kindle
Sergio Kindle has gone through a tremendous amount of adversity to get where he is at now.
The former three-time All-Big 12 first team player endured serious head injuries at the beginning of his career, and has yet to record a tackle in now his third year in the NFL.
Kindle will also miss Thursday's game with a shoulder injury, as he once again has caught the injury bug and will not be on the field.
The Ravens need Kindle to step up now more than ever. Tremendous uncertainty exists with the pass rush and linebackers in general, as several starting positions are up for grabs.
Kindle could easily snag one of these positions, but he will be on the sideline as he has been for the majority of his Ravens career.
If things do not turn around quickly for Kindle, it may be time for the third year player to call it quits on a disappointing career.
He still has a ton of talent, and is a few lucky breaks away from having a standout season. It has gotten to a point, nonetheless, where it is hard to trust Kindle, and the Ravens may decide to make room for another promising linebacker like rookie Nigel Carr by giving up Kindle's spot on the team.
In what is an easy prediction, look for Kindle to be the first member of the John Harbaugh doghouse since Bryant McKinnie moved out once preseason began.