An NFL team's third preseason game is usually subtitled "the closest thing to a regular-season dress rehearsal." Starters tend to play longer, sometimes even for a half, before backups and fringe players take over – not just for the rest of the game, but for the rest of the preseason.
I'm sure the Ravens will follow that script to some degree against the Buffalo Bills tonight at M&T Bank Stadium. It's their third preseason game. Some starters will play more than they did in the first two preseason games, and then we won't see them again until the regular-season opener on Sept. 10 in Cincinnati.
But the injury bug that has struck the Ravens this summer has produced enough uncertainties, mostly on offense, that tonight's game deserves a different subtitle.
A dress rehearsal? OK, sort of. But it's also a "question and answer session."
A handful of questions about the Ravens are circulating, unanswered, as the regular season approaches. Tonight's game offers the potential for some clarity.
Before I address those questions, please note, there are also questions that will NOT get answered tonight, specifically whether injured players such as Ronnie Stanley, Breshad Perriman, Danny Woodhead, Marlon Humphrey, etc., will be ready for the season opener. (The team has said quarterback Joe Flacco will be ready.)
But other questions could get answered tonight, such as:
Who is the starting center?
Is it Ryan Jensen, who has manned the position since training camp began, or Jeremy Zuttah, last year's starter, who was re-signed last week?
Practices have been closed to the media since training camp ended last week, so we don't know who is running with the starters. I'm guessing Jensen gets the nod tonight because he is more familiar with the revamped blocking scheme, but Zuttah was re-signed for a reason -- the coaches know he can handle the job.
Who replaces Alex Lewis as the starting left guard?
The answer to the first question could impact this one. When the Ravens announced Lewis was out for the season, they penciled in James Hurst as the starter. But they're going to start their five best healthy, available linemen in some configuration, and with Zuttah's return, they could move Jensen to left guard if those two are deemed among the best five.
Stanley's injury further clouds things because Hurst is the backup left tackle and almost surely will play that position tonight.
Yes, it's complicated. And as Head Coach John Harbaugh said last week, "not ideal."
But the Ravens know Marshal Yanda and Austin Howard will start on the right side on Sept. 10 and Stanley eventually will start at left tackle. It's the other two slots that are up for grabs.
Who is Flacco's backup?
I'm including this because I've received approximately 4,000 emails and tweets supporting Josh Woodrum, the No. 3 guy, who has looked sharp in the second half of the first two preseason games.
The fans flooding my inbox want Harbaugh to give Woodrum some snaps with the starters tonight, thinking it would bolster his candidacy if he performs well. That opportunity would certainly enliven a preseason affair.
But regardless, it needs to be stated that Woodrum's chances of unseating Ryan Mallett are microscopic. Mallett has been up and down in training camp and the preseason, but he has more size and experience and a $2 million contract. Woodrum deserves kudos, but with Flacco's back acting up, it's extra important to have a viable backup. I just can't see the team going with a former undrafted free agent who has never played in the league.
Which receivers are making this team?
Perriman, Mike Wallace and Jeremy Maclin are in, as is Michael Campanaro if he's healthy. But anything is possible after that. Chris Moore, ostensibly the No. 4 guy, has been quiet. Keenan Reynolds and Chris Matthews have excelled on special teams more than on offense. Quincy Adeboyejo has looked good in practice. Anyone who takes a step forward tonight could help himself immeasurably.
Who is the returner?
It seems rookie Tim White had the inside track on the job until he was lost for the season with a thumb injury. Now it seems Reynolds and Campanaro have the inside track. But nothing is nailed down.