The waiting is over.
Football season returns to Baltimore with tonight's preseason opener against the New Orleans Saints at 7:30 p.m. at M&T Bank Stadium. Veterans like Joe Flacco and Terrell Suggs will likely see very limited action in the matchup, but the game is a chance for young players to burst onto the scene.
The preseason contest comes two weeks into the long days of training camp when both teams are eager to match up against a new face.
"It's time to go play against somebody else," Head Coach John Harbaugh said. "They're really excited to play in the game."
The coaching staff has made as much of an assessment of their roster as they can on the practice field the last few weeks, but now they're eager to see how young players handle the gameday environment.
"The games are big, because that's when the lights are on," Harbaugh said. "Rarely do you see a guy that doesn't do anything in practice and all of a sudden it comes out, and he lights it up in the game.
"[The rookies] are excited. They're going to play in their first NFL football game. It's something they've dreamed of their entire life. They're excited about that."
Three Matchups To Watch
QB Matt Schaub vs. Saints Secondary
The veteran backup has something to prove after an up-and-down start to training camp. Schaub has been prone to interceptions this summer, and matching up against a live defense will be a chance to show he's capable of winning games if Joe Flacco were to go down with an injury. Schaub will likely take the bulk of snaps as Flacco traditionally plays only a series or two in the preseason opener.
OLB Za'Darius Smith vs. OT Andrus Peat
The two rookies will likely get plenty of snaps in the first preseason contest. Peat was the No. 13 overall pick and is currently listed as the Saints backup right tackle. Smith, a fourth-round pick, is looking to help fill the pass-rushing production that left with Pernell McPhee. Peat will be a good test for Smith in his first NFL action.
WR Steve Smith Sr. vs. SS Kenny Vaccaro
The two starters probably won't be on the field for long, but keep an eye on them early. They got into a scuffle on the sidelines during last year's Week 12 contest on Monday Night Football, and there didn't seem to be any love lost between them. The stakes clearly aren't as high in a preseason meeting, but Smith is always full-go whenever he's on the football field.
Three Keys To The Game
Rookies Handling The Moment
The rookies are the center of the show early in the preseason. Just about every rookie on the team is in the middle of some competition – either fighting for a roster spot or a starting job. Proving they can handle the increased pressure that comes during a game is critical, even if it's just a preseason matchup.
Make Big Plays
The coaches are looking for players to step up with flash plays. Catching the coaching staff's attention in practice only goes so far, but players can earn their roster spots with big moments during the preseason. Competition is so tight at receiver, backup running back and both return spots, and somebody could put himself in great position to win a job by coming up with big plays.
The Ravens have already suffered a pair of serious injuries this summer with safety Matt Elam and defensive end Brent Urban both going down with torn biceps. Adding more players to the injury report with serious ailments could start to take a toll on the roster. The Ravens want to get their young players experience, but they also keep their fingers crossed that they make it out of each game healthy.