What to watch in the all-important third preseason game

As is the case every year, the third preseason game is the real tune-up.

The starters see their most extensive playing time, as coaches often rest the key players to keep them from getting hurt in the fourth preseason tilt. And that means it’s the last chance for the players teams count on to gear up for when the games start to count.

The Ravens’ visit from the Carolina Panthers tomorrow is doubly important because Baltimore opens the regular season a bit earlier - on Thursday, Sept. 5 at Denver, just one week after the final exhibition.

“This is going to be important. It’s going to be important the way we play,” coach John Harbaugh told reporters. “We want to win every game, and I really am proud of the way our guys have found ways to win. But we also want to play well, and that means every little thing we look at - whether it’s run blocking or run defense or the way we make checks and adjustments, the decisions we make at quarterback - we want to play good, solid football, and we’ve done that at times. But we haven’t been consistent this preseason so far, so we’d like to see that.”

Harbaugh expects many of his starters to play into the second half, but it will be an individualized decision. Some won’t make it to the end of the first half, he said.

So in the closest thing the Ravens have to a real game before facing the Broncos, there will be plenty of intrigue. Here’s a look at what to watch.

Will the first-team offense find a rhythm?

As Harbaugh alluded to, the Ravens’ top units haven’t been all that consistent during the preseason, and the offense has been especially sluggish.

Aside from a one-play scoring drive - a 77-yard touchdown pass from Joe Flacco to Torrey Smith - not much has gone right for the unit. The team has had great difficulty running the ball and has had a propensity to commit turnovers with Flacco throwing two interceptions in 18 pass attempts.

On the positive side, Flacco has been extremely efficient, completing 77.8 percent of his throws for 175 yards.

But Ray Rice’s 17 rushing yards on 11 attempts is far from good enough. The running game has long been the Ravens’ bread and butter, so the line needs to block better and more will be needed from Rice, arguably the most important player on the offense.

How will the main position battles shake out?

This week, Harbaugh said he’s starting to see some separation in the position battles. He didn’t expand on that, but Thursday’s game will essentially be the last opportunity for the lagging players to make an impression or for the frontrunners to seize starting jobs.

The main battle is at center, where Gino Gradkowski seems to have pulled ahead of A.Q. Shipley, especially after Shipley committed two penalties last week when given a chance to start. Both are expected to see time with the first team against Carolina.

At safety, Michael Huff has one spot locked down with veteran backup James Ihedigbo and first-round pick Matt Elam battling it out for the second spot. Considering the fact that Ihedigbo has started each of the first two games so far and has received more of the first-unit playing time, it appears that he’ll at least open the year with the top defense. Elam should take over the spot eventually, however, and that could be soon.

Wide receiver is a bit trickier. Smith has looked like a legit No. 1 and Jacoby Jones will likely be the No. 2 despite an unimpressive showing so far. Brandon Stokely is expected to be the No. 3, with tight ends Ed Dickson and Dallas Clark likely to be key figures in the passing game.

But can anyone from the likes of Tandon Doss, Deonte Thompson, Aaron Mellette, David Reed and Tommy Streeter crack that group or unseat anyone? Doss has had his moments, Thompson has speed and Mellette has just made big plays. So tomorrow night will be big for those three to make a push for a job.

With Jameel McClain’s return not in sight, who will grab hold of the inside linebacker job next to Daryl Smith?

Harbaugh said Tuesday that McClain will likely start the season on the physically unable to perform list because of his slow-to-heal spinal contusion. Harbaugh does expect McClain to be a factor at some point.

If healthy, McClain likely makes lineup decisions easy at inside linebacker. Daryl Smith looks like a ballhawking playmaker that could be a steal of a signing now that he’s healthy, and McClain would likely be slotted alongside him.

But there’s no certainty about when McClain will return because of how long this has lingered already. So in the meantime, Josh Bynes, Arthur Brown and Albert McClellan are the top options, probably in that order.

Bynes was impressive when forced into duty last year, and arguably improved the defense with his youth and athleticism. Harbaugh hinted this week that he has played well enough to join the No. 1s.

Brown was the team’s second-round pick this year and his play so far this preseason has made it clear why the Ravens moved up to get him. McClellan is a steady presence with experience and will see action, either in a primary role or backing up inside.

Tomorrow night could go a long way toward determining who will take the second starting job.

Will Jimmy Smith instill more faith than he has during a rough start to the preseason?

Since the Ravens selected Jimmy Smith in the first round of the 2011 draft, he’s had stretches of quality play, but hasn’t quite emerged as a sure-fire NFL starter. Last week was especially rough, as Matt Ryan and the Falcons routinely picked on him, and did so successfully.

One year removed from losing Lardarius Webb for the majority of the season, depth at cornerback is crucial. Corey Graham has played his way into being a cog in the secondary. Chykie Brown continues to rise, despite some preseason problems.

Smith is the one who might be the most important, however. He has the talent to be a starter, but hasn’t put it all together yet. An improved showing against Carolina could help his case. More troubles could see Brown passing Smith on the depth chart in the not-too-distant future.