Postcard from camp: Ravens
At the Ravens' spacious team complex in suburban Baltimore, where they're staying home for training camp a second consecutive year after a 15-year run of sweating through their summer work at McDaniel College in Westminster, Md., about 30 minutes or so northwest of here. The Ravens stayed home last year because of the late end to the lockout, and then decided it made more football sense to not hit the road every July and August. That's now the majority view in the NFL, with 18 of the league's 32 teams training in their own facility instead of camping elsewhere. It has not been a popular move with Ravens fans, because the team can't accommodate big crowds at their 200,000-square foot facility during camp, but Baltimore has tried to offset that by scheduling several off-site practices that thousands of fans can attend this month.
Add it all up and the Ravens have the option of parting ways with McKinnie if he doesn't keep his weight under control and prove he's one of the team's five best linemen. If he can't beat out Oher, Baltimore won't keep him around as a backup, even if it did pay him a $500,000 roster bonus in the offseason. McKinnie still has time to change some minds, but he needs to be able to run and move and handle the fast-paced, up-tempo style game that Baltimore wants its line to play. It's just my hunch, but unless injuries occur, I'd put my money on Oher at left tackle in Week 1's Monday nighter at home against division rival Cincinnati.
Lewis has gotten heavily involved in biking for exercise the past couple years, and he is said to do a minimum of 20 miles a day on his offseason rides (in full Tour de France-style biking gear I'm told). He wants to make sure he can run with and cover those ultra-productive tight ends that New England sends at him in waves, but as an inside linebacker, he also still has to stand up against the run at some point during the game. Is he too light, or just right? The regular season will provide the answer.
"It's all Ray,'' Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome said. "He sees the way the game is going, to the shotgun and three wides. The game is not played between the hashes any more for a great part of the game. So he felt like he needed to do that to adjust to the way the game is being played.''
Tucker has a powerful leg (he made a 62-yard field goal in Saturday's practice at M&T Bank Stadium) and it's hard to miss how different the ball sounds coming off his right foot compared to Cundiff's. Their battle will likely come down to how they fare in the preseason games, and a tie probably still favors Cundiff, based on the experience factor and how much the Ravens rely on winning low-scoring, close games. But in the practice I watched, Tucker was booming every kick long and straight, and Cundiff's efforts were a little less impressive, although he is apparently working on technique issues in camp. I know how some Ravens fans want to see this showdown end, especially those who have yet to forgive Cundiff for his critical miss last January.
The Ravens already knew Kruger had strong pass rush skills, but they've been encouraged this camp by his improvement in the area of pass coverage, knowing when and how to go into his drops. Staying healthy and surviving the 16-game grind is another key for Kruger, but he's off to a strong start and seems determined to seize the starting opportunity at hand and make sure the Ravens season didn't end when Suggs went down.
Caldwell brings a lot of credibility to Baltimore, and Flacco already is benefitting from his steady-as-she-goes coaching style. Harbaugh told me his fifth-year quarterback is having his best camp as a Raven "by a significant margin,'' with quicker reads and decisions, faster footwork, better on-field posture, and more accuracy than he has ever shown. If Flacco's head is troubled by the lack of a long-term contract extension in the final year of his rookie deal, he certainly hasn't shown it thus far in camp. It sounds like Caldwell gets at least partial credit for that.
Baltimore was my pick to win the AFC Championship last preseason, but I don't foresee reprising that one. Not after checking out the Ravens' brutal 2012 schedule. For starters, they play just two home games in the stretch of Weeks 5-12, or one each in the season's middle two months of October and November. Baltimore also draws its two annual AFC North grudge matches against the Steelers in a three-game span (Weeks 11 and 13), gets the Manning brothers back to back in Weeks 15 (Denver visits) and 16 (as do the Giants), and has challenging trips to Philadelphia (Week 2), Houston (Week 7) and San Diego (Week 12) sprinkled in. And let's not forget about the Week 3 AFC title-game rematch with New England, which may be the highlight of the Ravens' entire home schedule.