Ravens fans are enthusiastic about getting the 2012 NFL season off to its preseason inaugural in Atlanta this Thursday night... especially with a bunch of Ravens rookies and unproven veterans out to solidify a roster spot.
But I'm more interested in how the Ravens defense the potentially explosive Falcons--- including QB Matt Ryan and WR Julio Jones---and how their young guys match up against the Atlanta hopefuls in the "try-out" phase of the game...mainly the 2nd, 3rd and 4th quarters. More specifically, Ravens fans should be paying attention to how the line play on both sides of the ball is developing...
Julio Jones will get his abbreviated reps at WR early in the game... but I'm more interested in seeing how his backup guys fare against the Ravens 2nd and 3rd team secondaries...
Perhaps the most discussed and debated area of the Falcons team so far this off-season, the offensive line, is a unit everyone should keep a close eye on in the 1st quarter. The Falcons' interior will be facing trial by fire going up against Haloti Ngata, Terrence Cody, and Pernell McPhee. Ngata and McPhee, who both play five-tech, combined for 11 sacks last season, and the big man, Terrence Cody, racked up 34 tackles. Falcons LT Sam Baker might not get tested the way we thought as OLB Terrel Suggs is (probably) out for the season after tearing his Achillies. But Baker will still have to go up against rookie second round pick Courtney Upshaw who has looked impressive so far at camp.
From a technique stand point, you will want to watch Atlanta OG Garrett Reynolds closely. When looking at Reynolds, the first thing you want to watch is what type of leverage he is playing with. Reynolds is 6'7", so keeping the proper leverage will be huge for him, and it is something he struggled with last year. If Reynolds has corrected this problem it will be a big step for him.
The other thing to watch with Reynolds will be his leg drive and if he keeps his feet moving while run blocking. Reynolds has a lot of upper body strength, but at times he'll stop driving his legs and moving his feet when run blocking. If Reynolds keeps driving his legs while run blocking, expect to see some holes open up in the run game and some DL's get pushed back a bit (although I wouldn't expect them to get blown off the line-- Haloti Ngata and Terrence Cody are both 340 LBs.)
When the Falcons' Lamar Holmes gets into the game the important thing to watch will be his run blocking technique. He had a bad tendency to fall off his blocks in the running game at the college level, and it's important that Holmes stays on his blocks. Another thing to watch for in the Atlanta run blocking game is to make sure that Holmes' feet are moving when he engages. He has a bad habit of trying to just out-muscle people with his upper body strength, and stops using his legs and feet in the run game. Among other things, it will be interesting to see how well he mirrors in pass protection. He is very light on his feet for a big man and mirrored very well in college.
The other unit you will want to look at is the Atlanta defensive line. Even though the Ravens lost LG Ben Grubbs and C/G Andre Gurode, they still have two very good players in RG Marshall Yanda and RT Michael Oher. LT Bryant McKinnie is decent when he is in shape, but he may not play due to injury issues. The big thing to watch here will be Atlanta's Peria Jerry going up against RG Marshall Yanda. Yanda was one of the best guards in football last year and is a road grader in the run blocking game. Reports are that Jerry might finally be back to his old self from before he suffered a very severe knee injury his rookie season. The other matchup to watch will be Atlanta's Ray Edwards going against Oher. It will be important to see if Edwards has his burst back...if he does, it could negatively impact the Ravens' running game.
When watching Atlanta's reserve DE Lawerence Sidbury people should watch for his get-off and his spin move. Sidbury is very athletic and it showed in college. His main knock was that he wasn't very developed as a pass rusher and needed work in the run game. Sidbury has developed an almost Freeney-esque spin move and looks to be developing the same kind of lean attack. Combined with his speed and explosive first step off the ball he might be a hand full for the Ravens' reserve OTs.
Thus we have the first assignment of the season for serious Ravens fans... study the line play... on both sides of the ball. This is where it eventually pays off over the long run in the W-L column.