Sneak preview of 2008 season

ON THE RAVENS

Tonight's game

Numerous questions remain, but many will be answered

August 23, 2008|By MIKE PRESTON

Preseason NFL games aren't usually worth the price of admission, except for the third one. That's because you can get a realistic glimpse into your team's future.

After nearly four weeks and two preseason games, we all have an idea about the Ravens in 2008, and it's not a pretty picture.

But more can come into focus tonight when the Ravens play the St. Louis Rams at the Edward Jones Dome. Most starters will play about three quarters before going into hibernation until the regular season starts Sept. 7.

There are a lot of questions surrounding the Ravens, a team that is rebuilding, or "retooling," as they like to say in the NFL.

Of course, the most pressing need is at quarterback. It's safe to assume that if second-year player Troy Smith performs well against the Rams, he'll be the starter against the Cincinnati Bengals in the opener.

Remember, this is Game 3, not Game 1. This is the last time the starters will get serious work in the preseason. Sixth-year quarterback Kyle Boller understands. His posture told the story as he walked into the locker room the day Harbaugh announced that Smith would be the starter against the Rams.

But the Ravens have other concerns, as well. It's interesting, amusing at times, how some injured players miraculously heal after two-a-day practices and just in time for the third preseason game.

A lot of the walking wounded are back. Adam Terry, a fourth-year veteran, is expected to start at right tackle after missing the previous three weeks with an ankle injury.

If Terry can play well tonight and it carries over into the regular season, the Ravens fill a hole, leaving only the left tackle position open. General manager Ozzie Newsome is still searching for another tackle via free agency.

The Ravens also want to see consistency from rookie running back Ray Rice. He got off to a slow start against the New England Patriots in the first preseason game and played well against the Minnesota Vikings last week.

The Ravens need some assurance because Rice could be the starter against the Bengals if Willis McGahee is still recovering from arthroscopic knee surgery.

On a broader scope offensively, the Ravens still have to develop an identity. New offensive coordinator Cam Cameron threw the ball a lot against the Patriots because he was trying to find a quarterback, and he stayed with the run last week because it worked so well against the Vikings.

In the past on game days, Cameron has liked to be unpredictable. But with so much youth on offense, he might have to become more conservative. When the Ravens recently signed fullback Lorenzo Neal, was that a signal that the Ravens were going to play smash-mouth football? Or did they bring Neal in more for pass protection because he is one of the better pass blockers in the NFL at his position?

There are just as many questions defensively, even though the Ravens should be one of the better units in the league.

There are still major doubts about the health of the secondary, and it doesn't look promising. Starting cornerbacks Samari Rolle and Chris McAlister have missed extensive practice time with knee injuries, and starting safety Ed Reed hasn't had full contact in practice yet because of a shoulder injury.

Barring last-minute changes, Rolle should play tonight, but McAlister and Reed will be on the sideline again.

After the New England game, backup cornerbacks Fabian Washington and Frank Walker seemed like capable replacements, but Minnesota repeatedly had open receivers.

Well, which secondary shows up tonight?

Besides Rolle, defensive tackle Haloti Ngata (knee injury) is expected to make his preseason debut along with outside linebacker Terrell Suggs (contract dispute).

Defensive coordinator Rex Ryan is looking for consistency out of safeties Jim Leonhard, Haruki Nakamura and Tom Zbikowski. They've all played well.

The third game is the true litmus test, as close as everyone is going to get to the regular season. Even after tonight's game, the Ravens will still have a lot of questions concerning the health of McGahee, tight end Todd Heap and defensive tackle Kelly Gregg. They still have to find out about the availability of Reed and McAlister for the opener.

But it's one question at a time. Quite a few of them should be answered tonight.

mike.preston@baltsun.com

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