Editor’s note: Beat writer Aaron Wilson gives his take on key topics surrounding tonight’s preseason finale between the Baltimore Ravens (3-0) and the St. Louis Rams (2-1) at Edward Jones Dome:
1. Is the competition settled at inside linebacker?
Jameel McClain has started three consecutive games and has performed solidly. He’s the top pass rusher among a group of candidates that includes Dannell Ellerbe and Tavares Gooden. Ellerbe is the hardest hitter and the most physical at taking on blocks. Gooden is the fastest and slightly better in pass coverage, which isn’t a strong suit for any of the three. Unless something dramatic happens tonight, McClain appears poised to enter the season as the starting Jack inside linebacker. All of them figure to see a lot of playing time this season.
2. Will Demetrius Williams answer the call?
The veteran wide receiver needs to suit up and excel tonight despite a sprained right ankle. With Donte’ Stallworth out for up to two months with a broken foot, this is a prime opportunity for Williams to assert himself. To do so, he’ll need to hold off the challenge of special-teams standout Marcus Smith and rookie fifth-round draft pick David Reed.
3. Will there be a clear winner in the kicker battle?
It’s extremely close between Billy Cundiff and Shayne Graham with the only missed field goal a 50-yard try from Graham. Cundiff appears to have a slight edge with superior leg strength on kickoffs, but Graham is the more established commodity as a former Pro Bowl selection. It will be a very tough call. Most expect Cundiff to win the job at this point, barring a setback against the Rams.
4. Who’s on the bubble?
Besides the three aforementioned receivers, some other players are on the edge. That includes: linebackers Edgar Jones, Jason Phillips, Prescott Burgess and Albert McClellan, defensive linemen Brandon McKinney, Lamar Divens, Arthur Jones and Kelly Talavou, running back Curtis Steele, tight end Davon Drew, offensive linemen Devin Tyler, David Hale, Stefan Rodgers, Bryan Mattison and Joe Reitz and defensive backs Prince Miller, Brad Jones, Chris Hawkins, K.J. Gerard, Ken Hamlin and Travis Fisher.
5. Who’s not going to play?
The Ravens are going to rest the majority of their starters, including quarterback Joe Flacco, running back Ray Rice, middle linebacker Ray Lewis and outside linebacker Terrell Suggs. Troy Smith is slated to start and play the entire game at quarterback. Several injured players are either out or questionable, including: wide receivers Stallworth (broken foot) and Mark Clayton (concussion), offensive tackles Oniel Cousins (concussion), Jared Gaither (thoracic disc injury) and Rodgers (undisclosed), cornerbacks Fabian Washington (bruised ribs) and Lardarius Webb (knee), free safety Tom Zbikowski (bruised thigh), center David Hale (bruised tailbone) and nose guard Terrence Cody (arthroscopic left knee surgery)