Al Saunders has a saying about preseason contests. "The games don't count, but they matter," the Ravens' senior offensive assistant has said on more than one occasion.
That statement resonated with defensive tackle Lamar Divens.
"I think Coach Saunders said it best," Divens said. "All of them matter to me. They're pretty big."
The significance of Thursday night's game at the St. Louis Rams -- the final one of the preseason -- looms large for several Ravens players who are not assured of a spot on the 53-man active roster.
Paring the roster began Tuesday. The team placed linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo (quadriceps surgery) and running back Matt Lawrence (knee) on the physically-unable-to-perform list, moved safety Marcus Paschal (right leg) and guard Daniel Sanders (left arm/shoulder) to injured reserve and cut cornerback Doug Dutch to get down to 75 players. Cutting the final 22 is scheduled for Saturday.
Thursday's contest is a final opportunity for many of those players to make a lasting impression with the coaching staff. And there are several positions where overcrowding is an issue.
McKinney has the most experience among that group, having played in seven games last season before getting sidelined by a herniated disk in his back. But he knows that evaluations can change from one year to the next.
"My biggest thing is to go out there and play," said McKinney, who has been hobbled at times by swelling in his right knee. "I'm not going to put any extra emphasis on it because then you begin to play for yourself. I'm trying to make the team, so I just want to go out and play ball."
Jones is trying to catch up with Talavou (who is tied for second in the preseason with 11/2 sacks), McKinney and Divens, but he is also a player in whom the organization invested a fifth-round pick in April.
"I feel like they brought me here for a reason, and I just try to get better every single day," he said. "You compete, you go out there every single day, and practice hard, but the main thing is to try to get better."
Burgess leads the defense with two sacks, but the club traded him to the New England Patriots last September before re-signing him the next month.
"It's all about practice, training camp and the games," Burgess said. "I feel I've had probably one of the best training camps I've ever had since I've been in the league. I've been hearing good things from the coaches, but I'm just trying to carry it on to the next game."
Phillips leads the entire defense with 11tackles in three preseason games. A fifth-round pick in 2009, Phillips has rebounded from a rookie campaign marred by a knee injury that forced him to injured reserve for the entire season, but he also knows he could be on the proverbial bubble.
"If cut day comes and they call your name, then they call your name," he said. "You've got plenty of chances somewhere else, but if you sit around thinking about it, you're not going to play good football. So you just go out and play your game and let things happen."
Injuries at the wide receiver position might have opened previously closed doors. With Donte' Stallworth expected to sit out until the end of October because of a broken foot and Mark Clayton (concussion) and Demetrius Williams (sprained right ankle) playing at less than full strength, Marcus Smith, Justin Harper and rookie David Reed suddenly could propel themselves into the discussion.
Smith, who has caught five passes for 35yards and a touchdown, appears to be slightly ahead of Harper (two catches for 23yards) and Reed (four for 38), but the 2008 fourth-round choice said he's trying to transform himself.
"I know my role has definitely changed. It's expanding more in special teams," said Smith, who is tied for third with two tackles on special teams. "I am starting on every special team. I am a gunner [on punt coverage]. On offense, we have so much depth."
For these players and others, what unfolds in St. Louis could determine their future.
"I don't know what the numbers are -- we could go through the roster and figure it out -- but there might be five, six, seven, eight guys who are battling for those last roster spots," coach John Harbaugh said. "And this game is really what it's going to come down to because you get to the point now where you have a pretty good feel and still, some of those competitions are so close that they'll be determined in this last game when those guys get so many reps and when you have an opportunity to evaluate them both in special teams and offensively and defensively through the course of a complete game.
"So we're looking forward to that. There are also some things, some guys, that have made the team that will have to develop their game a little bit, improve a little bit and maybe expand their role a little bit. So, it's a very important game for guys on the football team. It's the Baltimore Ravens playing, so we take pride in that. The guys that play in this game, it's their responsibility -- and I know they're excited to do it -- to play well."
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