Based on the comments of Ravens fans in our live game chat last week, the team went from bums to sure-fire Super Bowl champs and back to bums again during the course of their 34-31 preseason win over the Redskins. The slow start would have been concerning if it was a regular-season game, but it wasn't, and the Ravens rallied back for an exciting win. More importantly, they continued to progress.
On Thursday night, the Ravens travel to Atlanta to take on the Falcons. If we're lucky, we'll get a Joe Flacco vs. Matt Ryan showdown for a series or two. The starters will give way to the backups, who will eventually be replaced by a bunch of guys you've never heard of. Then those guys will be replaced by a bunch of guys that they've never heard of. You've got to love the final game of the preseason.
The game will likely be boring and it will definitely be sloppy. But with roster spots, paychecks and NFL dreams on the line for some players, there are storylines to watch. Here are five I will have my eye on:
1. If the starting offensive line plays… All eyes should be on that reshuffled group. Bryant McKinnie, who was signed last week, will be at left tackle. Michael Oher, who lost his spot to McKinnie, will move back to Joe Flacco's good side. And center Matt Birk and right guard Marshal Yanda, who missed time in the preseason with injuries, could join left guard between those two big bookends. The coaching staff was mum on how much time, if any, the starting offensive line will get against the Falcons. But since Flacco expects to play, the Ravens have to protect him, right? So count on seeing the line for at least a series if that's the case. (UPDATE: Jamison Hensley reports that Flacco, Ray Rice and the entire starting offensive line will not play, so please disregard this.)
2. Will Torrey Smith get up to speed? The rookie wide receiver out of Maryland has two catches for eight yards in the preseason, and he rushed for a seven-yard loss on a Cam Cameron special (aka an end-around). The consensus among the Ravens after the win over the Redskins was that Smith is pressing too hard, which is understandable given his draft status. But the trade for Lee Evans has taken the pressure off Smith and fellow rookie Tandon Doss to take on large roles right away. Remember, these guys didn't have the luxury of offseason workouts to catch up to speed, so they are learning on the fly right now. That point must be hammered home.
3. The secondary competitions remain unsettled. The battles at cornerback and safety may already be over. We will know for sure based on how long the principle players are out there in Atlanta. If we see Jimmy Smith, Domonique Foxworth and Cary Williams for a while, that would hint that the brouhaha isn't done. But if we're seeing the likes of Josh Victorian and Chykie Brown early, Ravens coach John Harbaugh has probably made his mind up. Also, the presence of any no-name rookies at strong safety might be a sign that the competition among Bernard Pollard, Tom Zbikowski and Haruki Nakamura has been decided.
4. Tyrod Taylor looks to lock down the backup QB spot. "I know I have to impress people and people are going to be watching me as far as the No. 2 job," Taylor admitted this week. His sparkling play was hard to miss in the second half of last week's win. He used his legs, his arm and his head to lead the Ravens on a game-winning drive in the final minutes. He looked like a different player than the one we saw in his first game. At this point, we know Taylor is a keeper, and it will be fun to watch him develop here. But we need to know now if the Ravens can trust him should Flacco get injured.
5. Special teams could indicate who stays and who goes. Watching punt coverage and kickoff returns can be boring, especially with the new rule change, but keep a close eye on special teams tonight. This is the last time roster bubble boys will get on tape, and being able to perform on special teams could be the difference for an undrafted rookie free agent or a four-year veteran who are battling for a roster spot.