Will the dress rehearsal breed hope for Ravens?

By the time mid-September, October and November roll around, no one's going to remember or even think about preseason performance. The games don't count and are intended as a tune-up to build chemistry and get a taste of game action before every single play will bear meaning.

But if any preseason contest matters a little more, it's this one.

On Thursday, the Ravens host the Jacksonville Jaguars for both teams' third game - the one where the starters play more and is considered the best indicator of how good your team will be in the regular season.

Coach John Harbaugh told reporters this week that this will probably be like the traditional third-game format where the top units play into the third quarter to get a real feel for each other.

"I'd like to see them get a lot of good, extended work," he said. "The performances of certain players are a really big part of it, but the performances of groups and units together is probably more important, because that's how the game is played. We would expect that to be the case - guys working together better, fewer communication mistakes, being more synchronized. You hope all through the season that continues on through.

"And through the season, if you stay healthy, you have the best chance to make that happen, because the same guys are out there working together. You can imagine why that would be important. We want to build that, obviously, through the preseason."

It's not really about the opponent or the backups or the rookies too much this week, although for many fringe guys, it'll be a last chance to make an impression before roster cuts begin.

However, the fourth preseason game is more crucial for the players seriously contending for the final spots. This one is much more about the players the Ravens will depend on and getting them to the top of their games.

"We want to go out there and put good work forward and good footage that we can look at and learn from," quarterback Joe Flacco told reporters. "This week is kind of the same. We want to go out there and we want to play well, but at the same time, we need to clean some things up and see what we're getting better at and see what we still need to work on maybe even a little bit more. So, like I said, I think we're kind of trained to maybe look at it like a dress rehearsal, and we want to go out there and let it all go and be successful."

Veteran linebacker Ray Lewis views this one as an important step in the team's preparation for the regular season.

"I think everything starts with communication and start dialing in. Your focus really changes," Lewis told reporters. "For offense, getting good drives going and finishing drives (is important). For defense, going and not letting drives continue, get off the field (with) three-and-outs and things like that (is important). I think it's a good chance for the starters to start communicating with each other now and really start dialing in and getting ready for our regular season."

The concern facing the Ravens through two preseason games is a pretty big one - the first-team units just haven't played that well.

The top offense has scored only one touchdown, but was able to move the ball better through the air last week. The defense hasn't put pressure on the quarterback and has been burned by big passing plays.

Starting with the offense, Harbaugh wants to see improvement in the red zone.

"The 'ones' have not fared well. We haven't scored, I don't think, like we want to, obviously," he told reporters. "So we just have to score touchdowns down there. We practice it a lot. We've had good days out here against our defense, and not so good days. But if you take the two preseason games, obviously, it's got to be better than that. We need seven (points)."

As for the defense, is there any fear that it isn't as strong as the past? Will the Ravens need to rely on other areas much more after being spoiled by more than a decade of defensive dominance?

Lewis didn't provide reporters with a definitive opinion, but said everyone needs to contribute.

"At the end of the day, that's why we're called a team," he told reporters. "It doesn't matter who takes the lead, who does whatever. If we go into games and win games together, that's the bottom-line emphasis. It doesn't matter what it is. Me, Ed (Reed) and the guys who are on our side, we are going to do what we are supposed to do (and) what we've always done. So that's not going to change for us. For us, offensively, what we're doing, the tempo and things we're creating - are we excited about it? Absolutely."

The reality is that even if the Ravens flop Thursday at M&T Bank Stadium, they still have until Sept. 10 to work on things, shape the roster and try to put themselves in the best position to win.

But if the troubling trends of the first two preseason games are on display for three quarters against Jacksonville, it might be time to think this year could be a greater struggle.