Ravens training camp: Biggest gain isn't a new player, but new scheme
With Ray Rice sitting out the first two games, Joe Flacco is really going to have to earn his big salary to keep Baltimore out of an early hole.
The Baltimore Ravens offense has to fix a broken run game that was ranked 30th in the NFL last year. The club expects new offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak to engineer the reconstruction with a zone scheme. The defense comes to camp not satisfied with how it finished last year, giving up 75 points in the last two games and missing the playoffs. The defense will be big up front, and there are new additions that should make it better than last year.
WHAT TO EXPECT FROM THE OFFENSE: The zone-run scheme made famous by the Denver Broncos is the big addition, and I caution all Ravens fans that it will take time to develop. With Ray Rice suspended for the first two games, Bernard Pierce, a capable runner, will get the chance to be the "bell cow." After watching practice, I feel the passing game is ahead of the run game, and this might be an offense that passes to set up the run.
Joe Flacco needs to be protected (48 sacks last year) and the interior of the offensive line looks better with Jeremy Zuttah at center, a healthy Kelechi Osemele at left guard, and of course Marshal Yanda at right guard. Eugene Monroe is serviceable at left tackle and it looks like Ricky Wagner will beat out Jah Reid for the right tackle spot. What is going to help Flacco is the addition of Steve Smith, who can handle a heavy load of the quick passing game. The other impressive dimension to the passing game is TE Owen Daniels along with the secret weapon, fullback Kyle Juszczyk. I could see Juszczyk at the other end of 50 receptions this year.
Last year, the Ravens averaged 40 pass plays a game and employed a heavy dose of the no-huddle package. This year, I would guess it will be closer to 30 pass plays and less no-huddle. The Ravens organization, starting with GM Ozzie Newsome, is fixated on playing better in division games. Last year against their AFC North rivals, they went 3-3 and scored only 18 points a game. This year, I think it is reasonable to see the Ravens closer to 25 points a game.
WHAT TO EXPECT FROM THE DEFENSE: The Ravens defense, which ranked 12th last season, lost four players who combined for 280 tackles, five sacks, four interceptions and 33 passes defended -- and they look like a better defense right now. The reasons they look better is centered on rookie linebacker CJ Mosley. Terrell Suggs likened him to Patrick Willis in his rookie season. Mosley can go sideline to sideline, gets off blocks, has pass rush skills and drops in coverage like a veteran. .
Darian Stewart takes over at free safety and looks like he'll be a more-than-adequate replacement until Will Hill returns from his six-week suspension.
As for the pass rush, Suggs and Elvis Dumervil should produce close to 20 sacks. Suggs said, "I'm feeling great and I like where our defense is right now." Part of why Suggs is so optimistic revolves around CB Jimmy Smith, who looked good in coverage all day against Baltimore's receivers. Smith and I did talk about the NFL's decision to emphasis illegal use of the hands and pass interference, and he said "I'm going to play my physical brand of football anyway and try to be aware of how the officials will be calling the regular-season games."
ROOKIE REPORT: First-round pick CJ Mosley is a star in the making. Second-round DT Tim Jernigan will be in the defensive line rotation, and sooner or later will take on a big role up front. Terrence Brooks is buried on the roster with the third defense. Crockett Gilmore is the third tight end and will make the team; the coaches are pleased with his blocking, and his receiving skills are underrated. It is a shame DE Brent Urban was lost to an ACL because he was having a great camp and was going to be a factor up front. RB Lorenzo Taliaferro is expected to play a role, especially early in the season with Rice serving his suspension. Bernard Pierce said Talifaro is a very strong runner with better breakaway speed than people first thought.
THE BIGGEST QUESTIONS
1. How big is the distraction surrounding Ray Rice? The team has moved on from the issues surrounding Rice and is preparing to play without him. The distractions might increase when the team is on the road, but at no time did I get the feeling it is a topic of conversation in the locker room.
2. Can the new running game be ready for Weeks 1 and 2? No Ray Rice and a new zone scheme against Cincinnati and Pittsburgh is no easy task. I would think Flacco will be trying to win these games through the air because this scheme might take a month of regular-season games to get right.
3. What is the backup QB situation? Tyrod Taylor enters his fourth season in the NFL and looked better than I ever remembered. Rookie Keith Wenning isn't ready to play, but his arm strength and ability to diagnose the defense is better than I thought it would be.
CONCLUSION: The Ravens camp stop was quite similar to the Steelers camp stop. They're both 8-8 teams last year that expect to go deep in the playoffs every year. This Ravens team will squeeze at least one more victory out of the schedule because of WR Steve Smith. The 2013 draft class of Matt Elam, Brandon Williams, Kyle Juszczyk and Ricky Wagner are all coming into their own, and that equates to a second win. I like the Ravens to get to 10-6 and fight for the division title in Week 17. The Ravens are heading back to the playoffs.
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