We all know that the NFL preseason is a necessary evil. It lasts as long as one quarter of the regular season and the ticket prices are the same as regular season games. Players are vulnerable to injury and that doesn't even factor in the meaninglessness of it all.
Like Allen Iverson once said, "We talkin' about practice. Practice."
However, one good thing the preseason does is give fans an excuse to watch football. And as the Ravens take on the Patriots tonight, there are a ton of things to watch for as the starters filter out of the game and we are soon left watching players who will likely be bagging groceries in a month.
The 2008 Ravens are surrounded by question marks, from the rookie head coach, down to the largely untested offensive line. And tonight we get our first chance to see a cloudy situation get a little clear -- or even more cloudy.
1. Offensive Line - when Jonathan Ogden retired, an already weak and inexperienced OL took an immediate hit. Without Ogden leading them into battle, the Ravens' 5 starting offensive linemen have only 7 years of experience between them. However, what this group lacks in experience, they make up for it with potential, with all but Gaither being drafted in the first 4 rounds. Even back-up C Chris Chester was drafted in the second round.
Tonight they will be without LT Jared Gaither and RT Adam Terry, both expected to miss another week, so we will be able to get a good look at Chad Slaughter, who the Ravens recently signed. Slaughter was out of football for all of last year but played with Oakland in the past. Filling in for Terry will be Mike Kracalik, who went undrafted in 2005 before being signed by the Jets. Rounding out the OL will be LG Ben Grubbs, C Jason Brown, and RG Marshal Yanda.
2. Quarterback - with elder statesman Kyle Boller starting, you'd think that the offense would benefit from being led by a veteran, but that probably won't be the case. Not behind this patchwork OL. And let's not forget, Boller has his own problems. However, we could see some flashes of what Cam Cameron can do with an offense led by Boller, and the deep pass is hopefully something that Cameron has added to the playbook. Boller has a huge arm, but Billick never took advantage of it during his time here.
Troy Smith is likely to come in at the end of the first half, and like Boller, he's not going to light up the scoreboard behind this OL, which will probably be made up of second and third stringers by the time Smith gets in the game. Smith can scramble and has that X-factor that Boller sorely lacks, so it may be fun to see Smith running (for his life) and making plays on his own. Remember, Cameron has been designing plays to take advantage of Smith's mobility during the offseason, since Smith is expected to be the starting QB come September 7th, but it's unlikely we see much of that tonight.
By the time Joe Flacco comes into the game, it's likely to be more of a glorified sandlot game than the NFL. But that will be the perfect spot for Flacco to get his feet wet. The Ravens' future hangs on Flacco, so taking time with his development is crucial. And after watching Colt Brennan play extremely well for the Redskins in the Hall of Fame game, it could be equally as exciting to watch Flacco play tonight in garbage time.
3. Defensive Line - after losing Adalius Thomas to the Patriots and Trevor Pryce to injury, the Ravens pass-rushing ability seemed to disappear in 2007. Pryce is back, but no one has filled in for Thomas. Yet. Hopefully the Ravens will be able to pressure the QB in '08 and doing so tonight would ease a lot of fans' minds. Plus knocking Tom Brady down and then watching him yell at his offensive linemen is always fun to watch, preseason or not.
4. Running Back - Willis McGahee will not play tonight due to a bothersome left knee, so it is Ray Rice time, baby! Rice has excited thus far in training camp, and we are sure to see a lot of the former Rutgers star in action tonight along with returning back-up RB's Cory Ross and PJ Daniels.
5. Secondary - Largely due to the non-existent pass rush, the secondary suffered in 2007. Samari Rolle battled epilepsy the entire season, which left fill-in Corey Ivy exposed. So the Ravens traded for former Raider Fabian Washington during the draft, and we should get a look at him tonight. Washington is likely to work wonders for our secondary depth. In the meantime, hopefully Rolle can come back strong to bat down passes along with Chris McAllister.
At safety, Ed Reed needs to check his ego at the door and get back to his dominant self, and hopefully a change in coaching style will help. Dawan Landry was also a disappointment last season, and the Ravens responded by drafting former Golden Domer Tom Zbikowski in the third round to sure up the position. He's sure to get a lot of looks tonight.
So there, you have it. Five huge things to watch for tonight as you fall asleep on your couch with the game on. And that doesn't even factor in the special teams, which will benefit from Yamon Figurs coming back from injury and the overall feel of the team under rookie head coach John Harbaugh. Will there be the usual dozen false start penalties under Harbaugh?
Let's hope not.
Just another thing to watch for.