Ravens have difficult decisions to make as they finalize the roster

FootballBaltimore RavensPittsburgh SteelersJimmy Smith (football)David ReedTom ZbikowskiLee Evans

Preliminaries behind them and last-minute roster surgery ahead, the Ravens settled in for the long haul Friday, content they had made the most of this strange preseason.

"I feel like we have gotten as much done as we could," coach John Harbaugh said less than 24 hours after bringing down the curtain on a 3-1 preseason in Atlanta. "I feel like we are as far along as we could have possibly been."

In the span of 22 days in August, the Ravens picked up a Pro Bowl fullback (Vonta Leach), a bone-jarring safety (Bernard Pollard), a speed receiver (Lee Evans) and a dominant left tackle (Bryant McKinnie). They may not be done. The free agent market will be flooded with new players when teams cut their rosters to 53 today.

Among the jobs still to be claimed is the backup quarterback behind Joe Flacco. While rookie (and sixth-round pick) Tyrod Taylor has played magnificently during the preseason, he now has a left shoulder injury, and if he would have to play against the Pittsburgh Steelers in nine days, he would be fresh meat.

The Ravens may believe they can protect Flacco well enough that Taylor won't have to play. History — and this summer's ragged performance by an ever-changing offensive line — suggest otherwise.

McKinnie hasn't taken a real snap since last season and can't possibly be in game shape on Sept. 11. Center Matt Birk hasn't played since last year, either, and he's coming off knee surgery. Right guard Marshal Yanda hasn't played since the first preseason game because of back spasms.

Playing behind replacements all preseason, Flacco was not shy about leaving the pocket. He may turn into a running quarterback this season if his protection isn't up to snuff. Under these circumstances, adding a veteran backup against the Steelers seems like a reasonable move, even if it requires a full-season salary for the new guy.

The Ravens' offense is still a work in progress. With moving parts in the offensive line, who knows how quickly the running game can be effective. And that, too, is important to maintain Flacco's health.

The Ravens' defense is another story. Under new coordinator Chuck Pagano, it appears to be good enough to finally beat Ben Roethlisberger. Pagano has depth almost across the board, but especially in the secondary, where the Ravens succumbed to big-play pass offense last season.

The starting cornerbacks could be rookie Jimmy Smith and Cary Williams, or Domonique Foxworth and Chris Carr. The safeties could be Ed Reed and Pollard, or Reed and Tom Zbikowski, who started six times last season. The package possibilities, as Zbikowski was saying Friday, are endless.

"We have plenty of depth," he said. "I think with that depth, there's also going to be a lot of different packages that we'll be able to do. I think everyone will get comfortable with whatever our role is. Obviously, we know all the positions, but when you can just hone down and really be specific on one certain thing … I think it's going to make us that much more potent as a secondary."

From all indications, the blitz is back in Baltimore. Pagano blitzed often in the preseason, but still didn't show his hand with new schemes. He will have confidence to blitz more often this year because he knows his corners can hold up in man coverage.

Playing Pittsburgh in the opener puts a lot of chips on the table right away. Defending against Roethlisberger's big plays will be vital while the offense tries to find its legs. In this case, the Ravens' defense has to be able to shut the door on all those improvisational big plays that Roethlisberger pulls off at critical times.

How might the Ravens accomplish that?

"Making Ben feel uncomfortable," Zbikowski said. "It's still being able to keep him contained to the best that we can. Getting hits on him [too], because it seems those big plays always happen when he gets a chance to scramble or when there's too much time for him, when you've got to cover for 6 or 7 seconds."

For now, the Ravens are still sorting through their offensive options. They need to identify the third receiver (David Reed or Torrey Smith), the backup quarterback and the third running back (Anthony Allen or Jalen Parmele). They need to stabilize the offensive line.

And they need to expedite the process. Pittsburgh is coming.

ken.murray@baltsun.com

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