Preseason offering key positional battles

Preseason games seem to have a bad reputation.

Whether it’s the fact that the games don’t count in the standings, or the expected dip in overall quality on the field, fans are quick to turn their noses at the mention of the four annual scrimmages used to tune up for the regular season.

True, thoughts of the preseason don’t exactly conjure up ideas of spectacular plays or the intensity of the regular season, but with crucial positional battles and guys fighting for coveted roster spots, a preseason game can have the same passion and excitement as any other game (save for maybe the playoffs).

For a number of players, the preseason is their only chance to prove to the coaching staff that they belong in the starting lineup, and for some, simply as a member of the 53-man roster. A lot of these guys aren’t superstars and probably won’t ever see their busts in Canton, but with a starting job or roster spot on the line, it’s the preseason where they have to put all of their focus.

The Ravens are certainly no stranger to this situation. Like every other team, their current roster is far from set in stone, meaning first-string positions are still up for grabs and some players will head home in less than a month.

On the offensive side of the ball, much has been talked about the tight end battle between second-year players Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta, both aiming to replace veteran Todd Heap, who signed with Arizona in free agency.

Yet across the line of scrimmage stand three guys all fighting for one position -- the coveted safety spot opposite likely future Hall of Famer Ed Reed.

With the departure of Dawan Landry, a starting spot is open, and Tom Zbikowski, Haruki Nakamura and recently-acquired Bernard Pollard are each gunning for the role.

Haruki_Nakamura-sidebar.jpg“It’s a competition,” Nakamura said. “It doesn’t take away from other people’s friendships, it doesn’t have grudges...It’s unique to have a place like [Baltimore] because from the backups on the D-line, to the backup linebackers to the backups on the safetys, we feel like we can start anywhere in the National Football League.”

With the talent between the trio, that’s certainly true. Both Pollard and Zbikowski have started games in the NFL, while Nakamura has emerged as a viable alternate option. Last season, Nakamura appeared in all 16 regular season games for the Ravens and captured his first-career interception in the team’s Wild Card playoff win against Kansas City. Zbikowski missed half the season with injuries to his foot and back, but earned six starts in the process.

Pollard, meanwhile, is new to the purple and black in 2011, but spent time with the Chiefs and Texans over his first five seasons. When the Ravens signed him to a two-year contract in free agency, Pollard knew this was his chance to be a part of one of the league’s top defenses, while Nakamura and Zbikowski merely saw the acquisition as another opportunity to get better.

“It always ups the level of your performance when there’s competition,” Zbikowski said. “I’ve seen Bernard play since our college days at Purdue and obviously “Ruk” and I have been together for quite some time so there’s some good, young talent but there’s definitely not a lack of talent at the safety position.”

For Zbikowski, the extended offseason both aided and hindered the fourth-year player out of Notre Dame. With time away from the football field, Zbikowski moved his work inside the ring, where he has spent time as a boxer since he was 9 years old.

A Silver Gloves finalist in 1998-2000, Zbikowski has been a nationally ranked boxer, compiling a 60-13 amateur record over his career. His debut fight came in June of 2006, when he laid out his opponent in just 49 seconds at Madison Square Garden.

To say Zbikowski can hit is an understatement.

Tom_Zbikowski_Ray_Lewis-tall.jpg“The hits aren’t different, but boxing punches are easier to take,” Zbikowski said. “That type of conditioning, though, you don’t get tired (on the football field.) Out here you don’t get tired. Your legs get sore a little bit just getting used to running so much but wind wise you never get tired.”

Boxing is certainly in Zbikowski’s future, he says, but as far as his efforts on the field, the safety believes his role is simply to “make plays,” a trait historically common in the Ravens’ secondary.

In fact, when it comes to making big plays, one needn’t look any further than across the field at Reed.

“Ed’s a special athlete,” Zbikowski said. “Ed’s been doing it for quite some time so he’s got that locked in but for everyone else it makes it interesting. It makes everything fun and makes practice enjoyable.”

That is, of course, if Zbikowski is able to earn the starting spot. Both Pollard and Nakamura, however, are doing their best to make sure that doesn’t happen, even if they share a mutual friendship the rest of the time.

“Yea we used to be friends but then that boxing thing took over,” Nakamura said.

A joke, of course, except for when the duo hit the field.

Then, it’s all business. For Nakamura, 2011 is a chance to improve on a 2010 campaign in which the hard-hitter was finally at full health. Two years ago, Nakamura suffered injuries to his ankle and fibula, forcing him to the team’s injured reserve list for the season.

As for his approach to the position, the safety’s goal is to hone his overall skills in an effort to react to any situation, whether it’s a heavy rushing attack or a skilled passing assault. Either way, Nakamura says, he wants to be ready for whatever the offense throws (or runs) at him.

“I feel like I’m a pretty good player overall,” Nakamura said. “I can play the run, I can play the pass, I’m pretty versatile. I think the biggest thing last year was just getting healthy and fighting through the dislocated ankle and broken fibula, that was by far the hardest thing I’ve had to do in my life.”

Almost as hard as the job Ravens coach John Harbaugh is faced with in naming one of the three to the starting position, a task certainly easier said than done. He and the coaching staff have had several chances to watch all three players in practice and will finally get the opportunity to see them in game action when the Ravens face the Eagles later tonight.

Despite the dilemma, however, Harbaugh’s philosophy at safety is the same as any other and what he’ll be looking for is simply who plays the position the best.

“We’ll play the best,” Harbaugh said. “We have a lot of options there, adding Bernard there and these guys are going to duke it out and we’ll see who the best player is. I expect all of them to play at that level and I expect it to be a tough decision because of that. Those are three really good players so it’s going to be fun to watch.”

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