This is the time in the NFL, just before the third preseason game, when promising young players still buried on the depth chart examine their surroundings more closely than usual. They might not see them again, a fact that rookie free agent defensive end Charles Preston knows all too well.

"The opportunities so far have been slim, so I'm trying to make the best of them," said Preston, who starred at the District's Cardozo High and Hampton University. "What gives me hope is that I'm still here."

The 6-foot-5, 270-pound Preston played no more than a couple of possessions in Baltimore victories over the Philadelphia Eagles and Atlanta Falcons and may not see much more action against the Carolina Panthers on Saturday night at PSINet Stadium.

Ravens Coach Brian Billick said that cutting the roster to 65 players, which must be done by 4 p.m. Tuesday, is tougher than the final maneuvering to 53. So the third preseason game may be more important than the finale for many players.

"There's some evaluation you'd like to [continue], some guys who have shown potential," he said. "But you've got to get to 65. The decisions on getting to 53 may or may not have to do with the [last preseason game], simply because you've got to keep `x' amount of people."

Billick said his starters might play until halftime. Injured Pro Bowl defensive end Michael McCrary (knee) is being held out until the Sept. 3 preseason game at home against the New York Giants. Pro Bowl outside linebacker Peter Boulware may make his debut after injuring his shoulder during the final practice of a late-June minicamp. Pro Bowl wide receiver/punt returner Jermaine Lewis did not practice most of the week after suffering back spasms during a Monday workout.

"That'll be a game-time decision," Billick said. "Jermaine feels pretty good. We'll just have to decide how good he feels."

The Ravens' offense improved against the Falcons, although most of the points came from players probably destined for backup roles. Starting quarterback Scott Mitchell still needs much work on timing as he tries to make up for not playing the final 14 games of the regular season last year. He was benched by the Detroit Lions and traded to the Ravens in mid-March.

Billick was pleased with how well the running game progressed against a Falcons defense ranked among the best in the league last season. The Ravens rushed for an average of 4.0 yards last season but produced just seven touchdowns on the ground.

"We're getting that extra yard," Billick said. "The league average is about 3.7 yards. We tell our guys: `You get one more yard, one more yard and we're one of the better running teams in the league.' That's the challenge."

Billick earlier challenged the receivers -- and they responded with far fewer dropped balls and more precise routes. Qadry Ismail has stayed on the first unit at wide receiver opposite Lewis even though Patrick Johnson caught five passes for 170 yards and a touchdown against the Falcons. Johnson had been ahead of Ismail until the preseason opener. Veteran Webster Slaughter has played behind Lewis.

Scott Bentley will get the first field goal attempt as he tries to unseat nine-year veteran Matt Stover.

For Preston, some other rookies and even veterans such as safety Stevon Moore, effort may not result in employment. Preston lacks bulk and experience, so his realistic goal is the developmental squad.

"It always could be better," he said. "But I'm trying to improve every day. What else could you ask for?"

Ravens Notes: McCrary's agent, Michael George, said he and the Ravens are "pretty far apart" on a new contract. McCrary, who has 35 sacks in his last 38 regular season games, has said he will opt for free agency after this season if a deal is not finalized by Sept. 12.

Ravens vs. Panthers

What: Baltimore Ravens vs. Carolina Panthers.

When: 8 p.m.

Where: PSINet Stadium, Baltimore.

TV: WJZ-13.