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NFL Preseason Preview - San Francisco (0-0) at Baltimore (0-0)



By John McMullen, NFL Editor

(SportsNetwork.com) - A rematch of Super Bowl XLVII will help headline the Week 1 NFL preseason slate as the San Francisco 49ers travel to Baltimore to face off with Joe Flacco and the Ravens.

San Francisco enters the 2014 season looking to continue its success under head coach Jim Harbaugh, who became the first mentor since the 1970 NFL merger to lead his team to a conference championship game in each of his first three seasons. Meanwhile, Harbaugh's 36 regular season wins are the second most in NFL history by a coach in his first three campaigns.

The coach's most high-profile loss, however, was in New Orleans after the 2012 season when the Niners came up just short against the Ravens and Jim's brother John in Super Bowl XLVII, losing 34-31.

The lone thing missing from Jim's resume is the Lombardi Trophy and that window is closing on the Niners because the organization finally had to earmark big money toward the quarterback position and Colin Kaepernick.

That means difficult roster decisions are coming sooner rather than later and San Francisco's vaunted depth will eventually take a hit. For now NaVorro Bowman's gruesome leg injury in last season's NFC title game against Seattle and Aldon's Smith's ongoing legal issues could be the 49ers' biggest impediments in 2014.

"We know we have the talent to win a Super Bowl," star left tackle Joe Staley, who signed a contract extension through 2019 in the offseason, said. "There's a lot of urgency to get it done. We've identified things we can be better at. We have to take advantage of all the opportunities we get."

Veteran wide receiver Stevie Johnson was acquired by the 49ers from Buffalo for a conditional fourth-round pick in the 2015 NFL Draft and the Bay Area native should fit in nicely as a third receiver and outside-the-numbers threat behind Michael Crabtree and Anquan Boldin.

In fact with three veteran receivers and star tight end Vernon Davis, Kaepernick has all the skill position help he could ask for.

"Right now, we're all ones," Johnson told the 49ers' website. "The defense has gotta pick their poison, whether they're going to double-team Anquan, whether they're going to double-team "Crab," Vernon (Davis), me, Q.P. (WR Quinton Patton) is coming in -- you gotta pick your poison."

On the defensive side third-round pick Chris Borland is a natural, instinctive inside linebacker who may be pressed into action as the All-World Bowman continues to recover.

Veteran Michael Wilhoite is penciled in right now but Borland was an extremely productive player at the college level with a higher ceiling as a player.

"I think it's (Wilhoite's) spot right now, but I'm going to fight for it," Borland told the Wisconsin State Journal in July. "That's the story of the NFL, everyone fights to get on top and once you're there, you fight to stay there. Hopefully, I can earn that position. I'll do everything in my power."

Injuries have already cropped up in San Francisco during camp. Running backs Kendall Hunter (torn ACL) and LaMichael James (dislocated left elbow), and nose tackle Glenn Dorsey (torn left biceps) have all been hit with Hunter and Dorsey done for the year.

In Baltimore, off-the-field issues have dominated the narrative.

Cornerback Jimmy Smith became the fifth Ravens player to be arrested since the 2013 season ended when he was picked up disorderly conduct charges in mid- July.

Smith joined an ignominious group which includes running back Lorenzo Taliaferro, who was arrested for destruction of property and public intoxication, offensive lineman Jah Reid, who was charged with two counts of battery, and receiver Deonte Thompson, who was popped for marijuana.

The worst case, though, was star running back Ray Rice and his ugly domestic abuse issues with his now-wife Janay, stemming from a violent confrontation on an elevator at an Atlantic City casino. Rice was eventually suspended for the first two games of the season in a penalty ridiculed by many for its leniency.

From a purely football standpoint, the loss of Rice might not be the worst thing in the world for the Ravens. The former All-Pro is clearly on the downside of a brilliant career and averaged a dismal 3.1 yards per rush last season. Of course, his prospective replacement, third-year man Bernard Pierce, was even worse, managing just 2.9 yards per rush.

The biggest problem for the Ravens last season, however, was the play of the offensive line, particularly at center where Gino Gradkowski was a disaster as the replacement for the retired Matt Birk. Baltimore sent a fifth-round pick to Tampa Bay for Jeremy Zuttah back in March and he's expected to solidify things.

On defense the Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome is regarded have been lacking a bit in the middle since losing Ray Lewis to retirement and Dannell Ellerbe to free agency after winning Super Bowl XLVII. Rookie C.J. Mosley, an instinctive read-and-react linebacker, should hit the ground running next to veteran Daryl Smith.

Another area to watch is the health of talented corner Lardarius Webb, who had sports hernia surgery in the offseason and has already missed a series of practices with a back injury suffered early in camp. John Harbaugh has already ruled out Webb for the first two practice games and will revisit things from there.

"Maybe he'll play in the third, maybe not," the coach said. "It's really not that important for him. I want to get him right."

This marks the first preseason matchup between the Ravens and Niners.

After the clubs face one another on Thursday night, the 49ers will extend their stay in Baltimore to practice together with the Ravens for three days.

"We were trying to figure out how we'd set it up, and we decided to practice together after the first game," said John Harbaugh. "We felt like the first two weeks we needed to do our install process and it would be better after the game. Nobody has really done one after the game that I'm aware of, so this will be the first time. It's going to be fantastic. We just can't wait to do it."

08/06 12:52:26 ET