We're almost there, folks. Thursday marks the last day that teams around the NFL will be playing exhibitions -- beginning next week, everything counts.
For the St. Louis Rams and Baltimore Ravens, who meet up in St. Louis at 8 p.m. ET, this means one last chance to determine position battles, finalize roster decisions and get rookies playing time. Don't expect to see many starters for either team on the field, as most will be resting up for the regular season opener. This game is not about the stars, but the guys battling for a roster spot. Quite a few jobs will rest on performances in this game.
Meet the Rams
Entering his fourth season in the league, the Rams are looking for former first-round pick Sam Bradford to come into his own in 2013. Bradford has had some good years, but is yet to take the next step into elite NFL passer. The arrival of a pair of West Virginia rookie receivers, Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey, may help his cause. Working against him is the departure of Pro Bowl running back Steven Jackson, who is now heading up rushing duties for the Atlanta Falcons. Daryl Jackson looks like a capable runner, but replacing the 10,000 yards and 56 touchdowns his predecessor racked up over nine seasons in St. Louis will be tough.
The Rams ranked in the upper half of the league in pass defense in 2012 and have upgraded their secondary considerably this offseason. With Janoris Jenkins already holding down one cornerback position, the Rams coaxed Cortland Finnegan into following head coach Jeff Fisher over from the Tennessee Titans this season, then added corner Brandon McGee and safety T.J. McDonald in the draft. If St. Louis's offense can get them up in games early, it could be tough for teams to throw against them this season.
Meet the Ravens
The Ravens are coming off their second world championship in team history, The team returns a solid chunk of its offensive weapons from that team, including quarterback Joe Flacco. With over 3,800 yards and 22 touchdowns during his championship season, Flacco proved that he belongs in the upper tier of NFL signal callers. With his No. 1 target Anquan Boldin shipped off to San Francisco, Flacco will be looking to third-year standout Torrey Smith to pick up the slack in the receiving department. On the ground, Baltimore boasts one of the premier halfbacks in the game in Ray Rice, who is coming off a 1,100 yard, nine touchdown campaign in 2012.
You haven't heard this in a long time, but it will be the Ravens' defense that will be the team's biggest question mark heading into this season. With legendary linebacker Ray Lewis retired and safety Ed Reed roaming the secondary in Houston, Baltimore faces a tall order in replacing their production and leadership. That task got tougher on Wednesday, when the team announced that linebacker Jameel McClain had been placed on the physically unable to perform list. With McClain out until at least Week 6, the Ravens are now missing their top four linebackers from last season.
Local Takes: Rams
The No. 2 quarterback slot is still unresolved heading into the final preseason game, and the final shootout for the position is one of the story lines that Brandon Bate at Turf Show Times will have his eye on.
One position battle that has yet to find it’s resolve is that of backup quarterback. Austin Davis entered the preseason as the Rams #2, with veteran Kellen Clemens not far behind. Neither have impressed this preseason. Tonight’s game will provide plenty of both. Who’s it going to be? Free agency anyone?
Local Takes: Ravens
Though there's still one preseason game left, the Ravens' attention has already shifted to the Denver Broncos, whose fans are inciting controversy over next week's league-opening showdown between the two teams. After the league put up banners of Joe Flacco around the Denver area, it didn't take long for them to become targets. Victor Hensley at Baltimore Beatdown has the details.
Denver Broncos fans did not enjoy that the NFL put up these banners "promoting the Ravens," since the game is in Denver and not Baltimore. Obviously, the NFL wanted to promote the game in an unbiased manner, but Broncos fans did not like that one bit. Later on Thursday, the banners of Joe Flacco were seen getting vandalized, mainly by one guy in particular: Vic Lombardi. Lombardi is a sportscaster for CBS4, the local CBS station in Denver.
Follow the Fun
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O/U on Bradford's stats from Vegas: 3750 yards, 24.5 TDs, 14.5 INTs— TurfShowTimes (@TurfShowTimes) August 28, 2013
John Harbaugh said Tyrod Taylor is still in the concussion protocol. He was participating in practice today.— Baltimore Beatdown (@BMoreBeatdown) August 25, 2013
@jthom1 - Rams beat writer
. . .Only 20 of 60 playoff teams over last 5 years had a winning record in preseason.— Jim Thomas (@jthom1) August 28, 2013
@jeffzrebiecsun - Ravens beat writer
To no surprise, Harbaugh said that Flacco won't play in preseason finale Thurs. in St. Louis. Good chance backup Taylor doesn't play either— Jeff Zrebiec (@jeffzrebiecsun) August 27, 2013
The Rams are favored in this one, and by a wide margin at that. In the wild crapshoot that is preseason line setting, they're 8½-point favorites, according to Oddsshark.
Exhibitions are over and it's the real thing from here on out. Baltimore heads to Denver on Thursday to take on the Broncos in the league opener while the Rams host the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday.