For an overwhelming majority of NFL teams—20 to be exact—the preseason is a miniature "prove it" campaign, even though it still remains ultimately meaningless in the long term.
The preseason is where non-playoff teams attempt to instill hope in a fanbase that listlessly watches as their fantasy football teams have more success than their real-life ones.
The Baltimore Ravens and Atlanta Falcons are, of course, outliers in that sense. Atlanta was a second-half collapse away from representing the NFC in the Super Bowl in 2012. Baltimore, of course, is the defending Super Bowl champions.
Neither side has especially much to prove in the preseason to their fans, though each head into Week 2 of the exhibition season facing some questions about their ability to repeat that excellence in 2013.
One of the most prevailing storylines of this offseason was the roster turnover for the Ravens. Gone are Ray Lewis, Ed Reed and seven other starters from last year's triumphant team. Before Baltimore, no previous Super Bowl champion had lost more than five starters—not exactly a small deal.
At least through the first week of the preseason, these Ravens don't look like they're having any trouble with their new players.
Baltimore dropped 44 points in a four-touchdown beatdown of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to open the preseason. The starters (unsurprisingly) only made cameo appearances in the contest, but players like backup quarterback Tyrod Taylor put on a show in a dominant victory.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, Atlanta's opening preseason contest was a mess. The Falcons were pummeled by the Hard Knocks' Cincinnati Bengals, 34-10. Where Baltimore got a great performance from Taylor, backup signal-callers Sean Renfree and Dominique Davis simply made fans grateful that Matt Ryan has only missed two games in his entire career.
Again, preseason results matter not. But both Atlanta and Baltimore will continue their live laboratory experiment of constructing a 53-man roster on Thursday night, this time giving fans a deeper glimpse at their first-team stars.
With that in mind, let's quickly preview this Week 2 preseason contest.
When: Thursday, Aug. 15 at 7:30 p.m. ET
Where: M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore
Watch: CBS Atlanta, WBAL-TV (Baltimore)
Live Stream: NFL Preseason Live (paid service)
Spread: Ravens -4.5 (via Vegas Insider)
Over/Under: 41 (via Vegas Insider)
Storylines to Watch
How Much Will We See Dallas Clark and Brandon Stokley?
The Ravens are facing transition throughout their roster, but there may be no unit in more dire straits at the moment than their receiving corps.
The Ravens sent Joe Flacco's top target, Anquan Boldin, to the San Francisco 49ers after being unable to work out a restructured contract and essentially replaced him with no one in particular. Playoff hero Jacoby Jones is expected to see a vastly expanded role across from Torrey Smith, but he showed up to camp out of shape and has exactly one 50-catch season at age 29.
Without much behind Jones and Smith, a majority of the onus was expected to fall onto tight end Dennis Pitta. Oh well, about that. Pitta will likely miss the 2013 season due to a hip injury that has left an already depleted core of pass-catchers without its biggest safety blanket.
With Ed Dickson also suffering a partially torn hamstring and being questionable at best for the season opener, according to Matt Zenitz of the Carroll County Times, the Ravens were bound to do something to help Flacco.
It turns out "something" means going to the free-agency Rolodex of former Peyton Manning favorites. Baltimore signed tight end Dallas Clark and veteran receiver Brandon Stokley this week, both of whom had their greatest success with No. 18 under center.
What will be interesting is just how much (if at all) either player sees the field. Offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell has a relationship with both players dating back to their days in Indianapolis, so it's likely a lot of the verbiage will be familiar.
Stokley and Clark are also intelligent players who, in reality, don't need much training camp outside of some pitch-and-catch with their quarterback and a copy of the playbook.
They should both have a clearly defined sense of expectations as well. Jones and Smith are the team's starting wide receivers and Dickson will start once he gets back, barring injury. The veteran pickups are meant to come in, play relatively tertiary roles and, most importantly, provide Flacco with reliable underneath route-runners.
Whether either will be particularly effective is another question.
Clark was healthy for the first time since 2010 last season, but his advancing age and the toll of his injury history limited his effectiveness. Football Outsiders measured him as the 41st-best tight end among players who caught 25 or more balls. Considering Clark has never been an elite blocker, it'll be interesting to see how he fits in with the Ravens' plans.
Stokley is 37. A year ago at this time, his career looked all but over. Let's just say I'm bearish on whether he and Flacco can find a love connection underneath.
Stokley succeeded with Manning despite not having elite athleticism because his Hall of Fame quarterback had perhaps the greatest timing in league history. Flacco is a Super Bowl MVP and a rich man, but he does not possess Manning's accuracy or otherworldly timing in the pocket.
How Will Falcons' Second-Unit Defense Shake Out?
Atlanta has had its own shuffling thus far during the offseason, seeing veteran stalwarts like John Abraham, Michael Turner and Dunta Robinson get cut due to looming cap holds.
The Turner "hole" has actually become an upgrade with Jacquizz Rodgers and Steven Jackson sharing the load in the backfield. The offense, which returns a bevy of starters from last year's NFC Championship Game squad, will be just fine.
Defense is where the Falcons' major concerns come in. They were a decent unit in 2012, performing around the middle of the pack metrically and being stingy in the red zone despite a propensity for bending between the 20s. While it's hard to say Atlanta will be markedly worse than a year ago, it's equally difficult to say it'll be much better.
Osi Umenyiora was the defensive answer to Jackson's signing, filling the "veteran pass-rusher" role on the offseason checklist. It says something about Abraham that it took until July for him to find a job, but you'll have a tough time convincing me that Osi represents an upgrade. That argument, however, is for another time.
What will be more interesting this season is how this Falcons team's second unit plays out. A majority of the positions on this roster are set in stone on both sides, making for some notable position battles early in the preseason.
Atlanta, in particular, boasts a robust roster of linebackers. Undrafted free agent Paul Worrilow was sensational last week against Cincinnati, picking up a game-high 12 tackles and flashing a nose for the ball—particularly against the run. He seems like a near-lock to make the roster at this point, even if he's listed with the third team at the moment. Guys like that won't slip to the practice squad.
Elsewhere among the unrestricted free agents, Brian Banks' comeback story did not look like it was on the way to a happy ending last week. He recorded only one tackle and was barely on the field. Opportunity is everything during the preseason, so Banks will have to take advantage of his chances before cuts start coming down.
Sean Weatherspoon also returned to practice after suffering a dislocated finger during practice a week ago (h/t the Associated Press, via NBC Sports). Weatherspoon probably won't play this week, but just seeing him on the field period probably led to some sighs of relief.
Where Falcons fans won't be exhaling anytime soon is when they look across the field from cornerback Asante Samuel. First-round pick Desmond Trufant was brought in on draft night as a cheap, talented replacement for the still-effective Robinson. Thus far, talk has been incessant about the former Washington standout's troubles.
Pat Yasinskas of ESPN.com called Truffant's struggles "normal." To an extent he's right. Cornerbacks historically struggle out of the gate as they get used to the complexities of NFL schemes and understand what their responsibility is when receiver runs Route A versus Route B. But if second-rounder Robert Alford continues pushing Trufant, this could turn into an exceedingly fun battle as we head toward Week 1.
Coming up with strategical reasons why one team will win an NFL preseason game is like spending eight hours researching a coin toss. First-string offenses and defenses will likely play about a quarter apiece on Thursday night and maybe a little more if the coaches are feeling frisky. That means about 75 percent of this game will be decided by players who are either clawing for a roster spot or trying to impress enough to get looks on the first team.
Seeing as each quarter takes equal importance, it's best to look beyond the superstars in determining a winner. For that, we check in on last week's results. Based on just about every mathematical formula known to man, the defending champs seem to have an edge.
It's an admittedly flawed process, but we're talking about preseason games here, so it's all a flawed process that leads us to sweet, sweet, glorious NFL action that's coming a couple weeks down the pike. So for now, let's stick with the Ravens making it 2-0 in the preseason.
Prediction: Ravens 24, Falcons 20
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