Postcard from camp: Ravens
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I've always liked the name "Owings Mills," but try saying it while eating a Fig Newton. Owings Mills is the town in Maryland where the Ravens work and work hard. The facility is a beauty, with a large lobby covered in dark-paneled wood and purple and white flowers lining the entrance to the practice field. But don't let the petunias fool you. The vibe here is all business. I've had some great conversations with Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome over the years, but my all-time memory might be a long ago sit-down with Mike Singletary. He was a linebacker coach with the Ravens for a bit, and he wore glasses that framed the most intense eyes I have ever seen. When Singletary talked about his love of football, of teaching players the finer points of the game, his voice rose into a boom. The guy is into his craft. You've probably heard.
1. Even in his 16th training camp, Ray Lewis plays like he's an undrafted free agent trying to stick. During Thursday's practice, Lewis was running from sideline to sideline, barking instructions to the defense while trying to rattle the offense. "Flacco!" Lewis shouted. "Flaaacccooooooo!" Where does he get the energy? Every offseason, Lewis says he finds a new training regimen that keeps his body in peak condition. (This offseason it was cycling, he says). At 36, Lewis continues to set a standard that his teammates know they must meet. "I've lined up with Ray Lewis for nine years, and that man studies like Master Yoda," says linebacker Terrell Suggs. Lewis has been at it so long it's nearly impossible to imagine the Ravens without him.
2. One of the smoothest transitions in Ravens history was the handoff from tight end Shannon Sharpe to Todd Heap. With Heap's release before the season, Baltimore is counting on a pair of second-year tight ends -- Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta -- to emerge. Dickson, who has good speed, caught 11 passes for 152 yards and a touchdown last season while Pitta, who is projected to have good hands, caught one pass for 1 yard. "They're doing well, they're very willing, and they're very smart guys," says Ravens tight ends coach Wade Harman. "Todd was a second-year player once, and so was Shannon Sharpe. [Dickson and Pitta] are going to grow at their rate." For many young tight ends, blocking consistently takes time. "[Blocking was] something in college they weren't asked to do a lot, at least in that normal, traditional role," Harman says. "They got some time last year doing it, and they're going to keep getting better."
3. First-year defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano will bring the Ravens defense back to its attacking roots. After tallying only 27 sacks last season under coordinator Greg Mattison (who now holds the same job at the University of Michigan), the Ravens are expecting that number to rise. "That's the only way we'll get over the hump," Suggs says. "We like the aggressiveness that [Pagano] portrays at times, and we like the smartness that he portrays at times. Whether we're being aggressive or we're playing coverage, I think we still have enough great players on this defense to get the job done." Says head coach John Harbaugh of his defensive players: "They are going to be reckless in the best sense of the word."
Joe Flacco, quarterback. I pulled Flacco aside after Thursday's practice, as I hadn't seen him since he defeated Miami in the playoffs as a rookie. "That was a long time ago," Flacco says.
I was impressed with how mature Flacco looked Thursday in Owings Mills, how comfortable he seemed as the leader of the Ravens offense. Despite the occasional criticism from the outside, his outlook for 2011 is positive. For starters, head coach John Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Cam Cameron are allowing Flacco to have a louder voice in putting together the Ravens' gameplan. Flacco sees it as a natural progression. He also doesn't shy away from the challenge of raising his level of play.
"You definitely have more of an opinion," Flacco says of his input into the offense. "The other thing is, we have a lot of young guys on the team. They need someone out there to help guide them around and coach them up -- other than a coach. That's a big job for me."
Safety Bernard Pollard, who spent the last two seasons in Houston, is a physical hitter who should fit nicely in the Ravens' scheme alongside Ed Reed. Last season Pollard made 111 tackles and forced four fumbles in 15 games. (He was also fined $40,000 for a hit on Tennessee receiver Justin Gage). During Thursday's practice -- his first with the Ravens - he intercepted a pass from rookie Tyrod Taylor.
With the Ravens getting the NFC West and four games against transitioning teams in Cleveland and Cincinnati, 11-5 feels right. Of particular interest are Baltimore's Week 1 and 9 matchups with the Steelers, Week 4 at home against the Jets, Week 14 at home against the Colts, and Week 15 at San Diego. These five games should say everything about the long-term prospects of the 2011 Ravens.