The first dress rehearsal for the Baltimore Ravens offered some clarity regarding several of the team’s uncertainties but that’s not to say there isn’t a shortage of unanswered questions as the second preseason battle approaches.
As John Harbaugh’s crew heads to Dallas to square off with the Cowboys on Saturday night, there are plenty of things to keep an eye on regarding key playing time distribution, roster battles and more.
What and who should you be keeping your eye when the Ravens take the field at Jerry World on Saturday?
Snap distribution at safety
As expected, the team sent out Matt Elam and Darian Stewart as the starting duo for the first preseason game, but there were two unexpected wrinkles that occurred: rookie Terrence Brooks was essentially a third-teamer and new addition Will Hill didn’t touch the field on defense.
For Brooks, his first-team playing time will come at some point, perhaps at some point during the regular season (nickel corner?), but for now, his task of climbing up the depth chart is what needs to be followed.
Special teamer Jeromy Miles played well as a free safety against the San Francisco 49ers, but ideally, if Brooks indeed is the franchise option at free safety, getting beat out by Miles for the backup job heading into the regular season wouldn’t be a good start.
Brooks played just 20 defensive snaps in his preseason debut, and for a player who appears to be struggling with the mental transition to the NFL, the more snaps and experience, the better.
As for Hill, there could be two approaches to why he didn’t play against the 49ers: either he simply is lower than the likes of Miles, Brooks, Omar Brown and Brynden Trawick on the depth chart, or the Ravens don’t see a need to give him any heavy workload, since he’s suspended for the first six games anyway.
The Ravens need to kick the tires with Hill under the preseason lights. He could be a key contributor when he returns to the field when Baltimore hosts the Atlanta Falcons on October 19.
If the Ravens view Hill as a valuable free safety option for the second half of the season, giving him some reps during the final three preseason games would be beneficial in the long run.
Will the backup offensive linemen improve?
The play of the offensive line on the opening drive in the first preseason game – and Ricky Wagner’s play at right tackle for the entire first half – was among the top headlines this past week.
While the starters played as well as anyone could have hoped (in a very small sample size, however), the backup linemen did not offer as much confidence.
The second-team left side of the line did not fare well, with rookie tackle James Hurst and left guard Ryan Jensen struggling on multiple occasions.
Hurst is in a battle for a roster spot with veteran Jah Reid, but the fact that his marginal strength in pass protection was evident in his preseason debut – it was a continuous problem during college – doesn’t provide overwhelming hope for him to have a facilitated path to a roster spot.
Jensen, on the other hand, is someone worth watching closer. Last Thursday was his first game (preseason or regular season) of his NFL career, and the first meaningful tape he has put on record for evaluation (not exactly easy to find Colorado State Pueblo game film).
He struggled to handle interior pressure, but as an expected member of the final roster, it’d be reassuring to see some sort of improvement from the second-year lineman in game two.
Also keep an eye on rookie John Urschel and which offense he works with. The fifth-round pick was the right guard for the third-team offense in the first game, and perhaps he could receive second-team reps against the Cowboys.
How will the Ravens handle the DE situation?
Heading into training camp, Baltimore’s defensive line as a whole was one of the deepest units on the entire team.
Since the start of camp, though, the team has dealt with two season-ending injuries at defensive end, losing rookie Brent Urban and Kapron Lewis-Moore.
Neither was expected to have a heavy workload this season, but both would have received defensive reps, particularly Lewis-Moore.
The Ravens still have a handful of key players to ease the losses, mainly DeAngelo Tyson and Chris Canty, as well as end/tackle hybrids Timmy Jernigan and Haloti Ngata.
The key to solving the depth problem could be moving Pernell McPhee back to defensive end full time, where he belongs.
McPhee played both outside linebacker and defensive end against the 49ers, but if the team uses him more as a hand-down end this season, then the losses of Lewis-Moore and Urban won’t be too noticeable, especially since McPhee is one of Baltimore’s best ends when used as a traditional defensive lineman.
The play of Jernigan and his ability to take on a large role this season could also be a key to keeping a strong front line solidified.