The months of waiting are over.  The expectations of a good off-season are heightened and the build-up of twoweeks of training camp has Baltimore Ravens fans ready to explode.  Thankfully the NFL is back…It is game time.  Well, pre-season game time, at least.  Sure the starters will see limited minutes and the coaches will scale back the play calling and the game means next to nothing.  The only real battle is the battle to avoid injuries, but it is exciting to see the Ravens line-up against the Carolina Panthers and take the first step toward what Ravens fans hope is the franchise’s 2nd trip to glory.  The ultimate goal is a game to be played in February and it is still the middle of August.  What do Ravens fans have to look forward to in tonight’s pre-season game?

1. The re-vamped offense:  Sure the look-see will be brief and the play calling will be vanilla, but it will be exciting to see Donte Stallworth and Anquan Boldin take the field for the first time as Ravens.  Not to mention seeing how Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta compare to the positive training camp reviews.  The thing I am most excited to see is how Joe Flacco looks.  Prior to ankle and hip injuries in 2009, Flacco looked great throwing the ball.  He had excellent rhythm, good mobility and quick decision making.  In the 2nd half of the season defenses adjusted to what the Ravens were doing, Flacco was slowed by injuries and at time lacked the confidence to make the throws he is capable of.  Will Flacco regain the form that made the game look easy for him at time last year?

2. The play of the o-line and secondary:  The Ravens offensive line should again be a strength for them in 2010, but there is a major concern over Jared Gaither’s readiness for the season.  Gaither will again not be in action on Thursday night and Oniel Cousins will start at right tackle.  Cousins had some solid moments last season, but also had a nightmare game in Pittsburgh and has looked bad at times in camp.  Does Cousins have enough to step in if Gaither cannot get his act together and will he show it against the Panthers.  The secondary will also be depleted by injury.  What figures to be the Ravens top 3 corners, Fabian Washington, Lardarius Webb and Chris Carr, will likely sit this one out.  We will not see how well they play as a group, but it will be an opportunity to see what Travis Fisher, Prince Miller and Cary Williams can do.  At least one, if not two of those guys, will see significant playing time for the Ravens in 2010.

3. The kicking competition:  Shayne Graham and Billy Cundiff are duking it out in training camp so far.  Surprisingly, Cundiff is out kicking Graham so far.  Can Cundiff continue to do so when the pre-season lights come on?  Or, will Graham show the consistency that made his a reliable kicker for the Cincinnati Bengals?  Amazingly, this looks to be the most intense position battle for the Ravens this  pre-season and it is an important one too.  I think both guys can be adequate, but will one show that he can be a clutch kicker for the Ravens in 2010?

4. Troy Smith:  Smith was the Ravens back-up QB a year ago.  The club brought in Marc Bulger to provide a veteran presence at the position, as well as a QB who can make some plays and not be much of a drop off should Flacco miss some time.  Smith’s spot onteh roster does not seem safe right now, as the Ravens could go with just 2 QB’s to start the season.  Smith has not looked too good in camp and the question is, can Smith light it up in the 2nd half against the Panthers and entice some team to make an offer for Smith and take him off the Ravens hands?  Smith does not figure to fetch much, maybe a 6th round pick, but I think thatwould be the best thing for both the Ravens and Smith.