The Carolina Panthers (1-1) and Baltimore Ravens (2-0) will face off Thursday night in what is annually billed as the dress rehearsal week of the preseason schedule.
Unlike the first, second and fourth weeks of the preseason, starters for each team will play a significant portion of the game. Both the Panthers and Ravens will also employ more detailed game-planning in preparation of the regular season.
While it's still only an exhibition game that means relatively little in the grand scheme of things, Thursday's matchup should give the most accurate glimpse of where each team is at going into the 2013 season.
Here is a preview of dress rehearsal week for both the Panthers and Ravens.
Carolina Panthers' Major Storyline 1: The Return of Jon Beason
The Panthers welcomed Beason back to practice this week, per Joe Person of the Charlotte Observer, and there's a good chance he'll at least get some tuneup snaps against the Ravens Thursday.
Beason, 28, underwent microfracture surgery on his right knee this offseason and has since been eased back into camp work. He's played in just five games over the last two seasons, thanks to a number of injuries, but the Panthers hope he'll return close to the player he was during a four-year stretch from 2007-10 in which he averaged over 130 tackles a season.
With Luke Kuechly now manning the inside linebacker duties, Beason is penciled in at weakside linebacker. The Panthers could have a very good trio of linebackers if Beason is healthy and active on the outside.
The first step for Beason will be a return to live game settings. He might get that chance against the Ravens.
Carolina Panthers' Major Storyline 2: Springboard Cam Newton
The Panthers know that any rise in the standings in 2013 will be fueled by quarterback Cam Newton. This reality makes his dress rehearsal against the Ravens all the more important.
Newton, 24, has been somewhat erratic in his two appearances this preseason. Facing the Chicago Bears and Eagles, Newton has completed just 11 of 23 passes for 128 yards, one touchdown and one interception. His passer rating over the two exhibition games is hovering just above 60.0.
The Panthers won't care about preseason performances if Newton takes a big step in the regular season. However, getting the young quarterback some confidence against a still-jelling Ravens defense would go a long ways in jumpstarting the offense ahead of the team's Sept. 8 opener against the Seattle Seahawks.
Baltimore Ravens' Major Storyline 1: Righting the Ship on Offense and Defense
The Ravens are unbeaten in the 2013 preseason, but this team likely feels a little uneasy about how it has played on both sides of the football early on.
Quarterback Joe Flacco has thrown a pair of picks on the first team offense that has been sloppy at times. Against the Atlanta Falcons last week, Flacco hit on a 77-yard touchdown to Torrey Smith, but picked up just 54 yards on his 18 other plays. A strong performance against Carolina would help settle any worries about the rhythm of the unit before the the start of the real games.
The new-look defense has also had some struggles, especially against Atlanta. The Falcons scored 20 first-half points, led in large part by Matt Ryan and Steven Jackson. The Ravens' run-defense was especially poor, as Jackson rushed for 42 yards on eight carries in two quarters of work.
Another poor showing against the Panthers isn't the end of the world for the reigning champions, but head coach John Harbaugh will want better. Facing Newton will be an especially important test for a defense that has many new parts fitting into place.
Baltimore Ravens' Major Storyline 2: Acclimating Joe Flacco's New (but Old) Targets
According to Aaron Wilson of the Baltimore Sun, veterans Brandon Stokley and Dallas Clark are expected to play "extensively" on Thursday against the Panthers.
The two were signed last Tuesday, largely in response to a rash of injuries to Joe Flacco's receiving corps. Neither played more than a handful of snaps against the Atlanta Falcons while attempting to learn the offense last week.
The Ravens will want to see both over a larger sample size Thursday, when the starters and veterans are expected to play more snaps than in the first two preseason games. It'll be important for Flacco to continue developing timing and chemistry with both players, as each could play a defined role once the regular season begins.
The Ravens won't be attempting to teach the old dogs any new tricks, but both need to show they can provide the Baltimore offense with something tangible.
The Bottom Line
Neither the Panthers nor the Ravens can be too thrilled about the way their first two preseason games have turned out. Carolina has struggled at times on offense while Baltimore has been up-and-down on both sides of the football.
Tonight's game should give a better indication of where both teams are really at. Game-planning for starters, who will play deep into the first half and possibly into the second half as well, will present a clearer picture.
The Panthers obviously don't want to show all of their offensive cards in an exhibition game, but expect the play-calling to be more creative for Newton, who needs a spark before Week 1.
The Ravens will want to see a better showing on the defensive end, especially in stopping the run. The Falcons gashed Baltimore with the first team defense on the field last week.
Overall, both teams will want to see improvements across the board, but without adding any significant injuries. If the Panthers and Ravens can both accomplish that goal, Thursday night should be considered a win for both, regardless of the final score.
Prediction: Panthers 23, Ravens 20
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