There are few things that the hardcore NFL fan revels in more than talking about just how much they can’t stand preseason. While this is for good reason as the games are only an exhibition that largely exclude the players we’ll be watching on Fall Sundays in a few short weeks, there is still plenty that we can glean from tuning in.
Whether it’s tracking a storyline, seeing camp battles you’ve been reading about play out on an actual stage, or watching a player on the bubble step up in a big way and give the coaching staff something to think about, there’s plenty of authentic drama to take away from this time of year despite what many say. While it may not have the import of a competitive NFL game, a case can be made that the preseason at the very least sets the stage for them.
So how will that shake out for the Ravens, the NFL’s Ming Dynasty of the preseason over the last several years? Let’s take a look and see.
Will the Streak Continue?
Cal Ripken Jr. Wayne Gretzky. Byron Nelson. John Harbaugh. All four of these names are among those who hold claim to some of the greatest streaks in sports history. While the first three (and many others) hold very noteworthy streaks in their own right, Harbaugh’s ability to guide Baltimore to 20 straight preseason victories (to surpass the great Vince Lombardi for the all-time record last August) is potentially in a class of it’s own.
Consider the facts. By nature, the preseason is a transient period, with changing rosters not only year-to-year, but game to game, with motivations differing for everyone. The fact that Harbaugh has turned the Ravens into the NFL’s preeminent winning machine in this category may be even more impressive than it appears in this regard.
In all seriousness, it will be interesting to see if the streak continues for a few different reasons. The first is that the NFL at large seems to be moving away from the preseason as a concept wherein they’ve flirted with the idea of doing away with it entirely – in fact, they’ve already marked it down from four games to three as of late. Whether that affects the Ravens at all will be hard to judge, but it’s something to consider nonetheless.
Another reason is that Harbaugh was badly burned by the loss of J.K. Dobbins in a preseason game this time last year. To lose a star player for the full season is bad enough, but to have it happen in an exhibition game could be enough to make you re-think your priorities a bit. The injury bug that bit Baltimore has already influenced their practice intensity during training camp, so it stands to reason that with their 20 game win streak now forever etched into league lore, that Harbaugh will be willing to take his foot off the gas in August a bit.
Or, they’ll just go out there and win all three games by happenstance, as is very possible with the preseason. You never know what can happen this time of year.
Will the Roster’s Pivot Point Players Step Up?
The Ravens are an organization that pride themselves on squad depth year in and year out, and it’s certainly a commendable approach that’s brought them a lot of success. The same appears to be true in 2022, but there are a few position groups that either lack star power, lack depth, or lack both to some degree.
This year, those position groups would probably be the outside linebacking corps, and (sigh) the wide receivers. Outside ‘backer would probably fall into the latter category of the two mentioned; that is, they have some star power in the form of Justin Houston, Odafe Oweh, and Tyus Bowser (all falling into varying definitions of “star”) but lack some punch in the back end of their room. Daelin Hayes was seen as a possible steal in 2021 who had a quiet rookie year and now a quiet summer thus far, while Vince Biegel (the one depth piece who was flashing at the position) went down for the year with an achilles injury as camp opened.
This opens the door for a player like Hayes to flash under the lights in an actual game, or allow for undrafted talent like Jeremiah Moon to step up and make it difficult for the front office to leave him off of the 53 man roster. The same could be said at wide receiver, but the stakes feel even higher when it comes to that room (as it often does with the Ravens).
Returning are Rashod Bateman, Devin Duvernay, and James Proche, all of whom will see significant snaps this year, and not much preseason action. Behind them is an opportunity to seize the fourth, fifth, or sixth spot at the position, and the competition sounds to be fairly wide open (pun intended) as we head into game one. Tylan Wallace is presumably safe as a 2021 fourth rounder, but he’s had a quiet camp up to this point, and after him, it’s a who’s who of undrafted options that would do peak galaxy brain Ozzie Newsome proud.
Whether it’s the two current favorites in Jaylon Moore or Binjimen Victor, or a wild card name like Slade Bolden or Shemar Bridges, the chance to make this roster and see some targets in 2022 is very much out there right now. The first step towards doing so starts tonight vs. Tennessee, so keep an eye on this crop of receivers as much as you do any other position. The Ravens will need some of them to step up as things currently stand.
What Will We Learn About This Coaching Staff?
This is a tricky question, as teams deliberately run very vanilla versions of their schemes in preseason games so as to avoid tipping their hand prior to the games that matter. So, a more appropriate question may be, what can we learn about them?
A specific focus will be on Mike Macdonald who comes to Baltimore with plenty of hype as the league’s youngest defensive coordinator, and with very big shoes to fill in his former boss Wink Martindale’s absence. Some of the scuttle around the wunderkind coach is that his will be a scheme that doesn’t rely on the blitz nearly as much as his predecessor, and that it will help to simplify things across the board for the players when it comes to installments and terminology.
One specific thing to keep an eye on, for example, could be his usage of first round safety Kyle Hamilton tonight. The 6’4 safety with unique range has been lauded equally for his attitude and study habits as he has for his physical abilities, so will Macdonald summarily trust him enough to move him around the field and allow for his rare combination preparation-prompted instincts and freakish ability to take over?
While we may not even see much of Hamilton in the first game, it’s something to keep an eye on. Alternatively, there will be plenty of young exciting players who do see significant snaps. Whether it’s Travis Jones or Pepe Williams, Macdonald will have a good amount of talent at his disposal tonight, all of whom will have ample opportunity to show off their skillset no matter how bland the play calling is by design – from there, it’s up to them to make highlight reel plays that get us all a little bit too excited... but hey, that’s the fun of preseason, right?
How Many Times Will We Hear “Illegal Contact” Over the Next Three Weeks?
After a down year for illegal contact fouls in 2021, it sounds like they may be due for a serious comeback this season. A league spokesman recently told ESPN’s Kevin Seifert that officials are being told to “emphasize” these fouls in 2022 as a result of a low number of them called last year, the beginnings of which we’ll no doubt be seeing plenty of in August:
NFL wants officials to emphasize illegal contact fouls this season. https://t.co/B3obKG7zAp— ProFootballTalk (@ProFootballTalk) August 8, 2022
While NFL officials already have a hard time keeping themselves out of the action in the regular season, it’s even worse in August when we fans (simply trying to work our way through these at times very difficult to watch games) are told that it’s “preseason for the refs, too.” In years’ past, we’ve seen the league place emphasis on pass interference, roughing the passer, and other defensive transgressions which has drawn the ire of many for varying reasons.
For one thing, the idea of “emphasizing” fouls is a bit silly, and for another, calling multiple of them over the course of the game can seriously slow the game flow down and bring unwelcome breaks to the action. While it’s fitting that a heavily corporatized outfit like the NFL would think the answer to a better product would be to lengthen its rulebook, and make the proceedings more litigious as opposed to more free flowing, it doesn’t make it any more palatable as someone who’s simply hoping to enjoy the games.
While actual issues could arise from this, especially as the NFL further embraces the world of sports gambling, right now it’s still just a bit of a headache. And the headache is at it’s worst in the late summer, as the referees gear themselves up for plenty of game-disrupting action in the year to come.
Positional battles (particularly at receiver), bland play calling that we hope to glean something from, and overactive officials that’ll surely raise our blood pressure on an otherwise fine Thursday night. Preseason football in Baltimore is back, baby!