AFC North: Training Camp challenges
Ravens welcome new RB; Steelers hope to find old QB
Posted: Wednesday July 4, 2007 10:44AM; Updated: Wednesday July 4, 2007 6:45PM
Challenge No. 1: Replace Adalius Thomas.
It'll be impossible to find a player with Thomas' versatility, so the Ravens know they'll have some drop in production from a squad that led in NFL scoring defense at 12.6 points per game last season. They'll try to get more out of fifth-year veteran Jarrett Johnson, who had 22 tackles and 1.5 sacks in 2006. He could step into Thomas' starting spot at outside linebacker. Defensive coordinator Rex Ryan also may try to incorporate more creative schemes into his pressure package. But simply put, the Ravens have their work cut out for them.
Challenge No. 2: Tweak the running game to fit Willis McGahee's strengths.
The pre-draft trade for McGahee immediately improved the Ravens' mediocre rushing attack. Though McGahee's predecessor, Jamal Lewis, gained over 1,000 yards last season, the Ravens running game lacked big-play potential. Inserting McGahee into the lineup gives coach Brian Billick a dynamic cut-back runner who can work effectively between the tackles and also get to the corner. He'll enable the Ravens to move from the two-back offense used in previous years to a one-back offense that'll feature more variety in the receiver sets. Billick and his staff will spend the preseason putting the finishing touches on what should be a more diverse rushing attack built upon the strengths and versatility of McGahee.
Challenge No. 3: Increase Demetrius Williams' role in the passing game.
Averaging over 18 yards per catch, Williams gave the Ravens' the deep threat they lacked the past few years and helped open up the field for fellow receivers Mark Clayton and Derrick Mason. But with Mason's speed and skills declining, Williams needs to step up his game even more. He has an outside shot of cracking the starting lineup with a strong performance in training camp.
Challenge No. 1: Settle the quarterback debate.
Charlie Frye, Derek Anderson and rookie Brady Quinn are engaged in a heated competition that will be decided during training camp. While it appears to be a three horse race on paper, the battle will come down to the veterans. Last season's starter, Frye, completed over 63% of his passes, but had 17 interceptions during his 11-game stint as starter. Anderson displayed surprising potential in his four appearances at the end of last season. Though his overall numbers were not overly impressive, his ability to rally his team from a huge deficit versus Kansas City and his effectiveness versus Baltimore's highly respected defense won him some fans within the organization. After being penciled into the No.1 spot at the end of mini-camps, Anderson can officially claim the job with a strong performance during the preseason. It will be interesting to see if he can continue to build on the momentum created during the offseason.
Challenge No. 2: Be prepared to enter the season without Joe Thomas
After selecting Thomas with the third overall pick, the Browns appeared to solidify the left side of their line. But with speculation swirling of a lengthy holdout by Thomas, the Browns have to prepare for life without Thomas. Fortunately, they resisted the temptation to trade Kevin Shaffer prior to the draft, so pencil him in as the starting left tackle. Although he struggled a season ago, he has been a solid player throughout his career and should play better with Eric Steinbach beside him. Shaffer was one of their marquee signings in the previous offseason and the coaching staff indicated that they would not give his position away without a training camp battle. The competition between Shaffer and Thomas is one of several taking place along the line. With Kelly Butler vying for Ryan Tucker's spot at right tackle, the preseason will give the Browns plenty of opportunities to use different combinations and improve their overall depth. With more versatility and depth, the offensive line should be stronger when Thomas eventually steps into the starting lineup.
Challenge No. 3: Improve their pass rush
The Browns finished near the bottom of the league in pass defense last season. Though their coverage was spotty, the root of their problems was their inconsistent pass rush. Kamerion Wimbley led the team with 11 sacks as a rookie, but received little help from anyone else in the front seven. Without addressing their personnel weaknesses through the draft or free agency, the Browns will have to creatively come up with ways to pressure the passer. Defensive coordinator Todd Grantham, has some athletic players who have the versatility to be incorporated into an exotic zone blitz, but the Browns have been reluctant to blitz due to the questionable cover skills of their corner. Given the multiple looks that the 3-4 can disguise, the Browns will open up the playbook to create a consistent pass rush. If their young corners, Eric Wright and Leigh Bodden, can hold up during the preseason, the Browns will head into the season with enough confidence to feature the blitz as their primary way to pressure the passer.