Five Things to Watch: Baltimore Ravens

Posted Aug 28, 2013

1. Big play consistency from rookies

The big play potential from the rookie class showed up against the Broncos on Saturday. LB Alec Ogletree came away with the Rams’ first two takeaways of the preseason with a forced fumble that he returned for a touchdown and an interception at the end of the first half. Ogletree’s football instincts seem to be catching up to NFL pace. Look for him to build off of last week’s performance.

WR Tavon Austin, the eighth overall selection in the 2013 Draft, finished the third preseason game averaging 52 yards per punt return, including an 81-yard return to put the offense on the 3-yard line for its first possession. Austin has showed that he can change the game on special teams, but watch for him to break out on the offensive side of the ball as we near the regular season.

S T.J. McDonald has been one of the most consistent players in the rookie class, as he stepped into a starting role in Week 1 of the preseason. McDonald came up with a big play on special teams in Denver, blocking a Matt Prater field goal.

On the undrafted rookie front, LB Ray Ray Armstrong also got into the mix last week when he sacked Denver QB Brock Osweiler for a 10-yard loss, while CB Darren Woodard intercepted an Osweiler pass and returned it for 23 yards late in the game.

As the rookies become more knowledgeable in their respective systems, their big play potential should increase. Watch for the younger players to play more comfortably in their assignments and keep their momentum going into the regular season.

2. Offensive line

RT Rodger Saffold returned to action last week against the Broncos and came away with a strong showing, after suffering an injury in Week 1. His replacement, T Joe Barksdale sat out last week, but has returned to practice this week and may be looking to catch up on game reps. Watch for the offensive line’s full rotation to be healthy for the first time since the team’s first preseason game. The unit will look to get time together on the field Thursday before opening the season at home against the Cardinals next week.

3. Special teams

After putting two 50-plus yard field goals through the uprights in Cleveland and missing his only attempt against Green Bay, K Greg Zuerlein nailed a 58-yard attempt in Week 3’s preseason matchup against the Broncos. That mark is tied for first in the NFL as the longest field goal of the preseason. Zuerlein is also tied for first among NFL kickers in the preseason for his three 50-plus yard conversions.

The punt team has recovered from a rough start against Cleveland. Last week in Denver, P Johnny Hekker did very well, according to Head Coach Jeff Fisher, and he expects him to take that into the regular season when it counts.

“He was bombing it, and he was putting it right on the boundary,” Coach Fisher said. “That’s been our approach. We have to be able to do that as we get into our division and the league for that matter because of dynamic returners.”

Through the first three weeks of the preseason, Hekker ranks fourth in the NFL averaging 52.4 yards a punt.

Watch for Zuerlein to continue to show off his strength and accuracy, while Hekker looks to consistently execute directional punting and pin opposing returners deep.

4. Continued defensive improvement

Coach Fisher went into practice last week looking to improve the defense’s tackling and number of takeaways. In Denver, the Rams did just that as they limited broken tackles and finished with four takeaways.

The unit has had a gauntlet of a schedule from an emerging, new look Browns offense in Week 1 to the efficiency of QBs Aaron Rodgers and Peyton Manning over the last two weeks. While Rodgers and Manning ate up yards against a basic preseason defensive scheme, the Rams stopped them when it mattered most: in the red zone. The Rams held the two former Super Bowl MVPs to only one touchdown.

On Thursday, the unit takes on its third Super Bowl MVP, QB Joe Flacco, in as many weeks. Watch for the defense to continue its improvement, and stick to Fisher’s progression into the regular season.

5. Position Battles

The fourth preseason contest will be the final audition for players to climb the depth chart before the regular season, and there are several position groups that have players battling for a chance to get on the field.

- At running back, Daryl Richardson was recently named the starter going into Week 1 against the Cardinals. RBs Isaiah Pead, Zac Stacy, and Benny Cunningham are all vying for back-up roles that have the potential to receive carries in a committee-type system.

- At safety, McDonald has picked up Defensive Coordinator Tim Walton’s system quickly and played well throughout the preseason in the secondary. With S Darian Stewart sidelined with an injury, Rodney McLeod has stepped up and played well with the first unit. Coach Fisher took notice of McDonald and McLeod’s play last week.

“I thought they played very well together, from this standpoint: in (QB) Peyton’s (Manning) hurry-up, it was difficult for them to line up one at free (safety) and one at strong (safety),” Fisher said. “So, they lined up left and right and played both positions. They just interchanged and that’s saying a lot for two young safeties right now.”

Though McLeod has seen significant time with the first team in recent weeks, the starting role will remain Stewart’s when he returns to the field.

“Typically, guys don’t lose their jobs because of injury,” Fisher said, “but we’ll just re-evaluate it when ‘Stew’ (Darian Stewart) comes back.”

If Stewart is not able to play against the Ravens on Thursday, McLeod will have another opportunity to show his potential before the coaches re-evaluate the position.

- The battle between QBs Kellen Clemens and Austin Davis for the No. 2 spot will continue into Thursday’s game. Playing time has been split between Clemens and Davis evenly throughout the first three preseason games. Look for one to separate himself from the other on Thursday and secure the job of backing up Sam Bradford.

- Similar to the back-up quarterback spot, the starting left guard position has been up for grabs throughout the preseason and will remain that way going into Thursday’s game against Baltimore. Shelley Smith and Chris Williams have split time and alternated starts in the previous three preseason matchups. In addition to left guard, both have gotten time in at other positions along the line. According to Coach Fisher, that versatility helps their case for the job and makes the decision even harder to make. 

“He’s been moving around, too, which is good,” Fisher said about Williams. “The flexibility at the left guard spot and then a little bit of right tackle here and there for us – It’s been good.

“Shelley’s moving around a little bit and playing left guard, right guard. We’ve got depth there. We’ll have some hard decisions.”

The Rams must condense their roster to 53 players by August 31, meaning that Thursday’s game against the Ravens is the last opportunity for those on the bubble to earn a spot on the team. Players will look to impress coaches at their respective positions and on special teams, which often plays a key role in securing a place in the final 53. The final preseason game will take place on August 29 at the Edward Jones Dome at 7 p.m. CT.