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Ravens preseason preview: 5 storylines to follow in opener vs. Saints

After a yearlong hiatus, the most unstoppable force in NFL preseason play has returned. The Ravens, winners of 17 straight, are back for more.

“It means a lot, whether it’s a winning streak or just the idea of how you approach the games,” coach John Harbaugh said Thursday, as the team wound down its preparations for Saturday night’s preseason opener against the New Orleans Saints. “I just think it’s a credit to the players in terms of preparation and the coaches over the years in terms of, we run a good training camp, offseason program, and guys are ready to play good fundamental football. That’s what wins, whether it’s preseason, the [regular] season or whatever it might be.”

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The Ravens’ bid for a fifth straight perfect preseason will start at M&T Bank Stadium, where capacity limits have been lifted for the first time amid the coronavirus pandemic. Fans won’t be treated to much Lamar Jackson, if he plays at all. Other starters will be sidelined because of injuries or limited to a series or two. Don’t expect much more than basic play calls, either.

Still, with Week 1 only a month away, there’s a lot to consider. Here are five storylines to follow.

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1. Will Lamar Jackson play?

In Los Angeles, Chargers coach Brandon Staley has already ruled out quarterback Justin Herbert of preseason play. In Baltimore, Harbaugh is keeping the team’s QB1 plans under wraps. “We have a rotation for every different person,” he said Thursday.

Because of the pandemic, which wiped out the NFL’s 2020 preseason slate, this is only the second preseason Jackson has entered as the Ravens’ starting quarterback. In 2019, he played about a quarter in the Ravens’ first two games, wins over the Jacksonville Jaguars and Green Bay Packers.

But it’s the team’s third preseason game of 2019 that might be most relevant to the Ravens’ approach Saturday. After two starters, left tackle Ronnie Stanley and left guard Jeremaine Elemunor, suffered injuries in the week of practices leading up to the team’s matchup with the Philadelphia Eagles, and with right guard Marshal Yanda already ruled out, Jackson did not play.

If having three injured first-team linemen was enough to put Jackson in bubble wrap two years ago, having four unavailable won’t change the calculus. Stanley is still working his way back from ankle surgery. Ben Cleveland has missed most of the past two practices, and left guard challenger Tyre Phillips could be needed at tackle. Right guard Kevin Zeitler (foot) won’t play. And right tackle Alejandro Villanueva missed practice Wednesday and Thursday as he dealt with what Harbaugh called a “little thing” medically.

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If Jackson plays Saturday, it likely won’t be for more than a series, as Harbaugh told SiriusXM NFL Radio on Tuesday. Jackson is athletic enough and smart enough to avoid potentially risky collisions, and he’s still catching up on repetitions he lost while on the reserve/COVID-19 list. But he and the Ravens have a future to protect.

2. Will a favorite to back up Jackson emerge?

With Jackson’s return and the Ravens’ rising injury count, the backup battle at quarterback has faded somewhat out of sight. That should change Saturday, when Trace McSorley and Tyler Huntley could each get a half to make their case.

Both fit the Ravens’ system well enough. Both have limitations. McSorley has been more careful with the ball; his two interceptions Thursday came when running back Nate McCrary couldn’t secure a short throw, and the deflection fell to inside linebacker Kristian Welch, and later when safety DeShon Elliott picked off a pass that glanced off wide receiver Devin Duvernay’s hands after a scramble that had been seemingly called dead. McSorley has shown a better command of the presnap offense, redirecting players at the line of scrimmage, and is capable of getting into a groove on his drop-backs.

Huntley is more gifted athletically, with a stronger arm (and, notably, a longer windup) and more open-field wiggle. He had one of the more impressive completions of the first week of camp, connecting on a deep-out route that he threw from the far hash mark. He also threw three interceptions, including two in a row, in one 11-on-11 period. Huntley still has hiccups in his execution; on one of those picks, the receivers on the side he targeted failed to align properly. In recent practices, he’s pivoted after a pistol or shotgun snap to find that the running back expected the ball elsewhere.

Preseason experience could loom large. In 2019, as an undrafted rookie, McSorley went 51-for-90 (56.7%) for 533 passing yards, four touchdowns and two interceptions over the Ravens’ four games, including two starts. Huntley, meanwhile, missed out on the preseason experience as a rookie, and his only game reps last season came in emergency or mop-up duty.

Alejandro Villanueva talks about joining the Ravens after playing with the Pittsburgh Steelers for several years.

3. Who lines up where along the offensive line?

Maybe the only certainty up front is that Bradley Bozeman will start at center. Injuries, workloads and circumstances will determine who else lines up, and where.

Patrick Mekari can play tackle, guard or center. Phillips has split his camp reps between left tackle and left guard almost equally. Ben Powers could help out at both guard spots; he started on the right side last year and is in the mix on the left side this year. Ben Bredeson, a guard at Michigan, has seen time at center. Trystan Colon, a center at Missouri, has seen time at guard. Greg Mancz could likewise fill both spots.

At tackle, the Ravens also have veteran Andre Smith, who opted out of last year amid the pandemic and has struggled against the defense’s top pass rushers; Michael Schofield, who might see more time at guard; and undrafted rookies Foster Sarell and Adrian Ealy.

“We try to train them early and put them in those positions during [organized team activities], so it’s an easier transition,” offensive line coach Joe D’Alessandris said last week of the line’s juggling act. “And the guys know that’s their role, and the more they can do, guess what, the longer they get to stick around. It’s an opportunity for them, and they embrace it and do a heck of a job with it.”

"He [Rashod Bateman] actually is getting a surgery either today or Friday on his groin," said Harbaugh. "He'll be back from that sometime in September."

4. How do the Ravens’ rookies look?

The Ravens’ first-year players seemed to hit a rookie wall this week. Wide receiver Rashod Bateman, after dealing with muscle tightness earlier in camp, suffered a groin injury Monday that will require surgery and delay his return until “sometime in September,” Harbaugh said Thursday.

Odafe Oweh, who missed practice Wednesday and was limited Thursday, hasn’t looked as explosive lately as he did at the start of camp. Fellow outside linebacker Daelin Hayes, who missed the end of practice Wednesday before returning Thursday, has also been less disruptive.

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Cleveland’s path to a potential starting job took a detour with his two missed practices. Wide receiver Tylan Wallace, cornerback Shaun Wade and fullback Ben Mason are still adjusting to the speed and strength of the NFL level, though Wallace has flashed more since Jackson’s return.

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Defensive back Brandon Stephens has remained steady and healthy throughout camp. With the Ravens’ injuries at cornerback and the importance of their starting safety pairing, he could play a lot of snaps and a lot of different roles Saturday. Ar’Darius Washington, a Louisiana native and the team’s most impressive undrafted rookie, could bolster his roster case with a strong performance against the hometown Saints.

All but Mason and Washington are pretty safely off the roster bubble. But with the NFL’s reduced preseason schedule, they have one fewer game to play their way into a job.

“You can’t wait to see the guys in a game setting,” Harbaugh said Thursday. “It’s time. We’re ready. We’ve been ready for a few days. I can’t wait to get out there and watch these guys go.”

Ravens second year receiver James Proche II made the Ravens’ 53-man roster last season with his steady hands at punt returner, but he’s emerged as the team’s most productive slot receiver, playing himself off the roster bubble.
Ravens second year receiver James Proche II made the Ravens’ 53-man roster last season with his steady hands at punt returner, but he’s emerged as the team’s most productive slot receiver, playing himself off the roster bubble. (Kevin Richardson / Baltimore Sun)

5. Who levels up and who falls flat?

Wide receiver James Proche II, one of the stars of camp, woke up Thursday morning and typed out a timely mantra.

“Don’t listen to the hate or the hype,” he tweeted, “it’s all a distraction.”

Last season, a strong camp performance was enough to earn a roster spot. This season, players have the preseason back, and with it a chance to cement or change the narrative.

On one end of the spectrum are camp standouts like Proche and cornerback Chris Westry. Proche made the Ravens’ 53-man roster last season with his steady hands at punt returner, but he’s emerged as the team’s most productive slot receiver, playing himself off the roster bubble. Westry, a long and lanky presence outside, won’t have to contend with an especially deep New Orleans receiving corps, but he could always help his case with good reps on special teams.

On the other end are camp disappointments like Bredeson and outside linebacker Jaylon Ferguson. Bredeson, a 2020 fourth-round pick, is far off the pace at left guard and has spent some time at center, which he didn’t play at Michigan. Most of Ferguson’s pass rushes end with him stonewalled by the opposing tackle; the 2019 third-round pick hasn’t shown the speed to win with outside rushes or the strength to consistently knock back blockers.

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