When the Ravens return to M&T Bank Stadium on Thursday night for their first home game in over seven months, a preseason opener against the Jacksonville Jaguars, their most important objective might be the trickiest:
Through 11 training camp practices, the Ravens have largely avoided real, lasting pain. Quarterback Robert Griffin III suffered a hand fracture in late July, but he’s already returned to throwing the occasional pass in practice. There have been no players carted off, no starters sidelined for longer than a few days, no season-altering injuries of which to speak at all.
With the Ravens and Jaguars finally cleared for live contact, that might soon change. But there’s only so much coach John Harbaugh and his staff can guard against. As the Ravens look to push their preseason winning streak to 14 games and sort through 53-man-roster questions, here are six storylines worth following.
1. Just how “revolutionary” will the offense look?
Chances are, the revolution will not be televised Thursday. This is a preseason opener. Harbaugh said Tuesday that he hadn’t yet decided how much Lamar Jackson will play, but it likely won’t be for long. And while rookie Trace McSorley was a more-than-capable dual-threat quarterback at Penn State, the offense was built as a showcase for Jackson, not anyone else.
Still, it’s unlikely offensive coordinator Greg Roman will cook up an entirely vanilla game plan for Jackson, assuming he plays. Expect to see some of the wrinkles of last year’s offense — zone-read plays, run-pass-option looks, heavy formations with a fullback or H-back in the backfield. Just don’t expect to see Jackson put himself in the slightest bit of open-field danger. He might be faster than most cornerbacks, but that doesn’t mean he’ll want to prove it in the preseason.
2. Where will Mark Andrews line up?
The Ravens might not be too shy to preview one facet of their new-look offense Thursday. Throughout camp, Andrews has lined up as an in-line tight end (next to either offensive tackle), in the slot and even out wide. He’s produced from every spot, too. Jackson has found Andrews for jump-ball touchdowns in the end zone, impressive catch-and-runs over the middle and simple checkdowns.
Because the Ravens have more talent at tight end than at wide receiver, especially with rookie Marquise “Hollywood” Brown still not cleared for contact, it suits the offense to get Andrews, Hayden Hurst and Nick Boyle on the field together as often as possible. Ravens tight ends “know that they’re going to have to be a big part of our success,” positional coach Bobby Engram said last week, “and we’re going to embrace that.”
3. Will cornerback Jimmy Smith be tested again?
Smith doesn’t have a public Twitter account, which is probably a good thing after Monday and Tuesday’s joint practices. During a one-on-one drill Monday, Jaguars wide receiver Chris Conley twisted Smith’s footwork into a pretzel with an in-breaking route. Even onlooking Ravens fans gasped in surprise. On Tuesday, Smith allowed a long touchdown pass in 11-on-11 play to Conley, the first of two downfield completions the starter surrendered.
The 31-year-old has a month to get himself ready for the regular season, but Smith should be able to hold his own Thursday against a mediocre Jaguars receiving corps. The last time Smith played in a scrimmage at M&T Bank Stadium, rookie Miles Boykin ran past him a few times for big plays. He needs to show he’s starting to get up to speed.
4. Which outside pass rushers will step up?
There’s good news and bad news on this front. First, the bad news: The Jaguars probably won’t have their first-team offensive line on the field for long, denying Ravens edge rushers a chance to prove themselves against starting-caliber players.
The good news: Jacksonville’s second-team offensive line should play long enough that every Raven vying for snaps will get a fair shot at proving his worth. If Tim Williams, Pernell McPhee, Tyus Bowser, Jaylon Ferguson and Shane Ray are all going up against the same left and right tackles, it certainly makes comparisons a little easier.
With defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale likely to scale back the creativity of his blitz schemes during the preseason, there’s even more pressure on Ravens outside linebackers to win one-on-one battles. Matthew Judon’s already proven capable. Someone has to emerge on the other side of the line.
5. Who will take the lead in the sixth-receiver battle?
Two weeks of training camp have been enough to clarify the Ravens’ roster battle at wide receiver. If the Ravens keep five wideouts, the expected quintet will cause little debate: Willie Snead IV, Seth Roberts, Chris Moore, and rookies Boykin and Brown.
If the Ravens’ depth chart stretches to six — and every day that Brown isn’t a full participant in practice makes it more likely — it figures to be a tough call. For now, the leading contenders are Jaleel Scott, a 2018 fourth-round pick whose production has skyrocketed since an invisible rookie-year training camp, and Antoine Wesley, an undrafted free agent from Texas Tech who has impressed coaches and players alike.
Michael Floyd could thrust himself into the conversation with a strong showing Thursday, but Scott and Wesley are a step ahead. The preseason should spur some separation between the two. There’s already a lot of stylistic overlap: Wesley is 6 feet 4, 206 pounds; Scott is 6-5, 210 pounds. Both have found their way onto highlights with sticky hands. And even in college, Wesley and Scott each had only one standout season.
6. How will Kaare Vedvik kick?
Because the Ravens employ Justin Tucker, the NFL’s all-time leader in field-goal accuracy, it’s easy for a backup kicker to become an afterthought, just another name on the 90-man roster. But Vedvik became something far more valuable last preseason: a potential asset.
As an undrafted free agent, Vedvik made eight of nine field-goal attempts, including a 56-yarder against the Washington Redskins in the Ravens’ preseason finale. He also punted 19 times, averaging 46.8 yards per kick and a net of 40 yards. (Starting punter Sam Koch’s regular-season marks last year: 47.4 yards per punt, 39.8-yard net average.)
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But before Ravens officials could trade Vedvik, he was assaulted in East Baltimore. Vedvik’s injuries were significant enough that he was placed on the reserve nonfootball injury list, ending his season and ensuring at least one more summer with the Ravens.
Vedvik hasn’t looked like a future pro in training camp, but that will be forgiven if he drills kick after kick in the preseason. Special teams coordinator Chris Horton said early in camp that Vedvik is “right on schedule,” that he would “get better every day.” A kicker-needy team like the Chicago Bears wouldn’t mind parting with a late-round draft pick if that’s the case.
Thursday, 7:30 p.m.
TV: Chs. 11, 4
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