Postcard from camp: Ravens
Ray Lewis has lost about 20 pounds to keep up with the new, faster tempo of play
If Bryant McKinnie doesn't change minds quickly, he could find himself out of a job
New QB coach Jim Caldwell has clicked with Joe Flacco, who has had his best camp
SI.com has dispatched writers to report on NFL training camps across the country. Here's what Don Banks had to say about Ravens camp in Owings Mills, Md., which he visited on Aug. 1. Read all of our postcards here.
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.
1. Even with the Bryant McKinnie drama in the first week of camp, the Ravens are feeling pretty good about their offensive tackle position. McKinnie played well last season after joining Baltimore late in the preseason, but by no-showing early in camp and only re-joining practice over the weekend after passing his conditioning test, he has opened the door for Michael Oher to reclaim the starting left tackle job he held prior to 2011. Oher has looked solid in that spot so far, and rookie Kelechi Osemele has progressed rapidly at right tackle, with veteran Jah Reid giving Baltimore some depth on the right side.
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.
2. Ray Lewis is definitely leaner, but time will tell if his game got meaner. Entering his 17th NFL season, Lewis decided on his own that it was time to shed some weight and gain some speed at inside linebacker. He has said he's "much lighter'' than his listed 240 pounds, after playing near 260 last season, and I believe it judging from the eyeball test. Lewis looks to be in the 230 range, and at the camp practice I attended, when he and 225-pound Ravens safety Bernard Pollard were standing side by side, it was difficult to tell who weighed more.
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.''
3. Teams with legitimate Super Bowl aspirations aren't usually willing to trust a rookie kicker, but the 2012 Ravens could be an exception. We all know how veteran Billy Cundiff's 2011 season ended, with that galling miss of a 32-yard field goal attempt at New England in the AFC title game, a kick that would have sent the game into overtime and kept Baltimore's Super Bowl dreams alive. The Ravens signed rookie Justin Tucker this April to at least push Cundiff in camp, and the ex-Texas Longhorn is doing that and more. It's now an honest to goodness competition.
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.
Paul Kruger, outside linebacker. No pressure on Kruger this season. All he has to do is replace the league's reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year in Terrell Suggs, who tore his Achilles' tendon this offseason and likely won't return to his high-impact self until 2013. Suggs, of course, has been one of the NFL's most disruptive players from his weakside rush-linebacker slot, and in reality the Ravens know that one player alone probably can't make up for his lost production.
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.
Jim Caldwell, quarterbacks coach. In Caldwell coming to Baltimore, yet another ex-head coach from the 2011 season has landed with a new team that seems thrilled to have him (see Tony Sparano, Raheem Morris, Steve Spagnuolo, Todd Bowles, Jack Del Rio, Todd Haley, etc...). Caldwell, who was let go by the Colts after last year's Peyton-less meltdown in Indy, is a great fit with Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco, and the two have reportedly clicked almost effortlessly. Both have the same even temperament and calm demeanor, and Caldwell has been a welcomed and needed buffer between Flacco and offensive coordinator Cam Cameron, whose relationship has been known to have bouts of tension at times.
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.