Thursday, August 13, 2009

Just Preseason? Still Plenty to See as Ravens Face Redskins

Tonight the Ravens will face off in their annual preseason matchup against the neighboring Washington Redskins, and with a team with plenty of question marks to go with a lot of stellar players, there will actually be something to watch for this time around. And with the Orioles in free-fall (even Roch Kobatko has taken on a decidedly negative tone in his blog as of late), this couldn’t have come at a better time. You see, the Ravens aren’t guaranteed to be that 11-5 team of last year- they aren’t even guaranteed to be 10-6. This team has a lot it needs to work on, with departures of coaches and star players and the reliance on young untested played to fill key voids at wide receiver and injury prone players at tight end. I know one can’t usually get much out of preseason viewing (after all, the Lions were 4-0 last preseason and in Detroit people were drinking the Kool-Aid on a great season), but there are certain things to watch for that may come out rather quickly about this team.

The first position I am going to be watching is cornerback. Much was made of the signing of Dominique Foxworth and retention of Fabian Washington, to play at the top corner spots for this team. To me this seems like it was a bit of a gamble. Foxworth has never had an exemplary season, and for all his physical gifts, the Falcons and Broncos didn’t think he amounted to a #1 or #2 cornerback- and aside from Champ Bailey with the Broncos, these teams aren’t exactly loaded at the position. The Ravens took Foxworth hoping they could add legitimate coverage skills to his physical gifts and mold themselves a starter. In Washington they have a corner who has made strides since his acquisition from Oakland, but they are still dealing with a reclamation project on a player who struggled in tackling last season and was beat far too may times- and dropped a number of interceptions. So essentially Baltimore is starting 2 project players who they are hoping both pan out in the long run. Ed Reed can’t be much of a ball hawk if he is trying to make up for a blown coverage. This preseason game might give a glimpse into whether they show discipline in not simply relying on their physical gifts to make plays.

One has to keep an eye on the maturation of the offensive line. Being the preseason, you can’t expect complex blitz packages or an all-out rush, but you can see how well the line is communicating as far as whether a defensive end gets free or a linebacker tries to split the gap. All of these linemen are physical specimens, but it will be interesting to see how they work with new center Matt Birk, who, while he may have lost a step physically still has an incredible mind for the game. He is the lone veteran in charge of managing a very young line, and it will be up to him to ensure that Joe Flacco spends less time on his back than last season. Jared Gaither has gotten rave reviews as the next great tackle in this league, and it will be time this season for him to take advantage of those physical skills that made the Ravens pick him up in the supplemental draft. He has already been a steal for Baltimore, but now is the time for him to take on even more responsibility to play with his mind as much as his strength.

Joe Flacco. He may not make the “question marks section” on our ATH game previews as often this season as he did last season, but for a team hoping he is “the one” at quarterback, he will always be someone to watch. Preseason play means little for a quarterback, when timing is disrupted by playing a quarter or a half and the 1st and 2nd teams are being mixed, but I am more interested to see how he manages the team in a “pressure” situation, however that is created. Flacco spent much of last season looking at the sideline for direction; this season he will have more of the adjustments at the line added to his responsibility. He is a leader on this team, and he will be expected to perform in that capacity as much as in his play on the field. The players on this offense will be looking at him this year; he can’t be looking at the sideline.

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