Believe in Baltimore
Site: 1 Winning Drive, Baltimore Ravens HQ, Owings Mills, Md., 13 miles northwest of Baltimore.
What I Saw: Morning practice, Thursday, July 30. Sunny, 85 degrees, humid (probably shouldn’t have worn jeans).
The thing I’ll remember about Owings Mills: There were several big plays, including picturesque snags by 36-year-old Steve Smith and 21-year-old rookie Breshad Perriman that should excite Ravens fans for the future on offense, but my favorite moment from Thursday happened well after practice as players trickled out of the heat and into the air conditioning of the swanky Under Armour Performance Center. Following their first day of training camp – a spirited but cautious foray in helmets and shells – quarterback and Super Bowl XLVII MVP Joe Flacco, dropped his helmet on the grass path to the door, strolled towards the media hub, answered seven harmless questions, chatted with a reporter or two and went inside. Twenty minutes passed. Players signed autographs for screaming kids lined up behind ropes on their way into the building, and soon there was no one left outside but a handful of media packing up gear. And there was Joe’s helmet, resting on the ear fitted with Flacco’s all-important audio speaker linking him to coaches. Most of the quarterbacks I’ve met are cool on the outside and secretly neat-freak perfectionists at heart. I can’t imagine Peyton Manning or Tom Brady standing at a locker and not noticing or caring his helmet was missing. But that’s Joe. Maybe that’s what makes him so pedestrian in the regular season and so damn money in the playoffs; Joe cares when it counts.
Three things you need to know about the Ravens:
1. The offensive coordinator carousel continues. Joe Flacco will play forhis fourth offensive coordinator in four years after former play caller Gary Kubiak’s departure for the Denver head coaching vacancy. Enter Marc Trestman, shown the door in Chicago after his locker room and his defense fell apart. It’s too early to say how different Trestman’s approach will be from Kubiak’s, but the foundation of his spread-leaning offense is being built on swing passes and dump-offs to Justin Forsett and a host of fullbacks, and on the downfield acumen of Smith and Perriman. The rookie’s hands remain a question mark, but he did pull off a beautiful falling catch on the right sideline near the end of practice Thursday.
2. Baltimore believes in Timmy Jernigan, the second-year lineman tasked with replacing longtime anchor Haloti Ngata (who was traded for fourth- and fifth-round picks to the Lions this offseason). Jernigan averaged just 26 snaps per game last season but did enough for John Harbaugh and the front office to feel comfortable dealing a player who remains a Top-10 3-4 defensive end entering his10th season.
3. It’s a relief to be done with Ray Rice. And that’s despite what the team said about tuning out distractions a year ago. The controversy surrounding Rice’s arrest on domestic violence charges and subsequent suspension and release was an emotional burden that loaded stress in the early season and applied pressure on nearly every aspect of the organization this time last year. Said running back Justin Forsett: “It’s nice. There are no distractions. [We] want to keep it that way and focus on football.”
What will determine success or failure for the Ravens: How healthy the defensive secondary can remain over the course of a season. I’m talking specifically about the cornerback position, where there are the biggest question marks and the least depth. Jimmy Smith is the top corner, but he never quite got over a Linsfranc injury suffered at midseason. Lardarius Webb had perhaps the worst season of his career a year ago, and Asa Jackson struggled similarly. If the Ravens lose Smith, Webb, Jackson or free agent pickup Kyle Arrington for any extended period of time, trouble awaits.
Player I saw and really liked: Steve Smith. Who doesn’t like Steve Smith? Here’s reason No. 43,547 Steve Smith is an All-American Badass: Halfway through Thursday’s practice, the five-time Pro Bowler entering his 15th season wiggled past cornerback Rashaan Melvin in an 11-on-11 session, cut to the post and made a diving, one-handed grab of a Flacco pass in front of a late-arriving Matt Elam. Later, Perriman matched his effort with a diving catch of his own. You think Smith doesn’t know what he’s doing, diving for 20-yard receptions in shells on the first day of practice? Steve wants a ring, and he’s making sure everyone in Owings Mills is on board.
Five dot-dot-dot observations about the Ravens: Second-round tight end Maxx Williams has had a quiet minicamp and first day of camp as he learns the ropes. Meanwhile, second-year tight end Crockett Gilmore has bulked up while maintaining fluidity in a bid for the starting job… When the quarterbacks go with black jerseys and purple numbers, the easiest way to tell Flacco from 6-6 backup Matt Schuab is Schaub’s lackluster arm strength. Don’t count out Bryn Renner for the No. 2 job… Perriman seems to have your classic hot-and-cold hands early in camp, and he’s already answering questions about his biggest pre-draft knock… We surmise that the top position battle in camp will likely be at strong safety between Matt Elam and Kendrick Lewis, who, coincidentally, each struggle in coverage… In what seems like the next logical step in the downward sloping career of Lardarius Webb, the cornerback failed a conditioning test that measuresanaerobic conditioning, according to Harbaugh. Bad news for a defense that needs him to return to 2011 form.
The one name on the roster I’d forgotten about. Kyle Arrington. Smart pickup for a couple of reasons: Baltimore is short on corners, as previously discussed, and Arrington fits a need for a quick-twitch nickel corner who can lock down the slot. For example, Indianapolis’ T.Y. Hilton made mince meat of the Baltimore defense in Week 5 a year ago with nine catches for 90 yards on 12 targets in an Indy win. But in two games against the Patriots and Arrington last season, Hilton managed four catches for 60 yards.
Gut feeling about this team as I left town. They’ll win the AFC North, but what’s next? Do they get past Indianapolis or New England, or both? Earning home field advantage deep into the playoffs is critical.