Troy Smith under the gun against Vikings

OWINGS MILLS -- Troy Smith could take command of the Baltimore Ravens' quarterback competition with an authoritative performance tonight, or he could inject even more confusion into a muddled situation if he falters against the Minnesota Vikings. Although this is just a preseason contest at M&T Bank Stadium, it qualifies as a pivotal moment in the former Heisman Trophy winner's career.

Because neither Smith or former starter Kyle Boller really separated themselves during training camp, even though Boller was far more consistent overall, or against the New England Patriots, this is an especially important night for Smith even if he won't acknowledge the significance.

"I try to take everything as the same," Smith said. "I try to treat every situation with the same kind of morale, just put your all into every situation. You don't want to put too much into one and say that one is more important than the next, because you never know. Even though it's preseason, sometimes it could be your last play."

The keys for Smith are improving his accuracy, avoiding turnovers and displaying his strong leadership qualities in the huddle. After a rocky week of practice, he needs to maintain his composure against a defense that features star defensive linemen Jared Allen and Kevin Williams.

Smith has shown more big-play capability than Boller in practice, but has thrown many more interceptions.

"We want to see Troy play quarterback well and do the things that winning quarterbacks do," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "Move the team, make good decisions, operate the offense and avoid the costly mistake."

Against the Patriots, Boller completed 11 of 15 passes for 102 yards with a fumble and an interception. Conversely, Smith went just 5 for 12 for 74 yards. However, he didn't commit a turnover.

As a rookie, the former Ohio State star completed 40 of 76 passes for two touchdowns and no interceptions.

Smith has been consumed by nervous energy and excitement all week.

"That would be the understatement of the day," offensive coordinator Cam Cameron said. "If anything, sometimes that can work against you. You can almost be too excited at quarterback. There's no telling how early he'll be at the stadium."

Cameron first took notice of Smith a year ago when he was the coach of the Miami Dolphins and the first-year passer replaced an injured Boller and sparked the Ravens in his NFL debut in an overtime loss.

"In Miami last year, I remember when he came into the game and I was kind of glad because it was a young quarterback coming in," Cameron said. "All of a sudden, that ball went down the field twice and I said, 'This kid has something to him.'

"There are some special characteristics to this guy. He just needs to develop in this league just like all young quarterbacks."

Cameron has worked extensively with Smith on altering his throwing motion to streamline his delivery for a tighter spiral.

Smith has the requisite arm strength. It's just a matter of harnessing it.

"It was a modification," Cameron said. "Most young quarterbacks have to make some minor adjustments because of the speed of the game.

"We tried to shorten his delivery a little bit by lowering his arm. He has worked as hard in the offseason from a technical standpoint as any quarterback I've been around."

Cameron has also installed rolling pockets to improve sight lines and throwing lanes for Smith, who is listed at 6-foot, 225 pounds.

"He put me in a situation where the long stride that I had before, which sometimes helped me, in the NFL, it's not going to help you that much," Smith said. "Guys who are incredible quarterbacks like Joe Flacco can sometimes get away with it, but I had to change mine up so I could compete."

The major question surrounding Smith remains his accuracy.

He completed just 52.6 percent of his throws last season with a 79.5 quarterback rating.

"What you're seeing is him develop chemistry with his receivers," Cameron said. "He's more accurate today than he was yesterday, and he'll be more accurate tomorrow than he was today."

Harbaugh indicated that Smith will probably play the majority of the first half, just as Boller did in New England. The coach was bothered by the suggestion that the quarterbacks would be better off avoiding risks and adopting a conservative approach.

"We want our offense to be aggressive," he said. "We never say, 'Don't turn the ball over.' It's aggressive ball security. We want to score a lot of points and we want to secure the football. It's going to be the same thing with Troy."

Smith will have to make his bid for the job without both starting offensive tackles, running back Willis McGahee and tight end Todd Heap.

If Smith struggles against the Vikings, then it complicates the pending decision. The Ravens would conceivably need to use the third preseason game against the St. Louis Rams to determine who will start Sept. 7 against the Cincinnati Bengals.

Despite the high stakes, Smith is trying to keep his emotions under control.

"I don't think about things just in context of myself," Smith insisted. "It's about the team all the time. I'm just going to be myself. I'm going to step out there and try to be cool and calm and try to lead this team to a victory."

NOTES: Among the many players that may not play tonight: tight ends Daniel Wilcox (offseason toe surgery) and Heap (right calf), offensive tackles Jared Gaither (sprained right ankle) and Adam Terry (sprained left ankle), safety Ed Reed (shoulder), McGahee (arthroscopic left knee surgery), cornerbacks Chris McAlister (right knee), Samari Rolle (left leg), Fabian Washington (neck spasms), David Pittman (leg) and Derrick Martin (head), defensive end Trevor Pryce (left wrist), linebackers Dan Cody (right foot), Tavares Gooden (hip) and Robert McCune (knee), defensive tackles Haloti Ngata (sprained right medial collateral ligament) and Kelly Talavou (dislocated shoulder), wide receivers Demetrius Williams (left Achilles' tendon) and Derrick Mason (right knee) and nose guard Kelly Gregg (arthroscopic left knee surgery). Wilcox passed his physical.

Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.

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