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GOOD NEWS for Ravens fans: The offense is tired of getting sand kicked in its face. At least that's what linebacker Ray Lewis noticed during a scrimmage in training camp, when he dropped a few intimidating sound bites on rookie quarterback Joe Flacco while the kid shouted signals. In return Flacco, the team's first-round draft pick out of Division I-AA Delaware, shot Lewis a what-me-worry stare and ran the play—and completed the pass. "I like the kid," Lewis says. "Smart, humble, confident. He doesn't back down."
In nine years under former coach Brian Billick, the defense routinely overpowered the offense in camp, crowed about it, then outperformed the offense during the season. Considering that Billick was originally hired for his offensive know-how, the constant smackdown was perplexing. New coordinator Cam Cameron, backed by first-year coach John Harbaugh, came to town with a chip on his shoulder, and it showed during spring and summer workouts. But make no mistake: Defense is still king. "These are the most physically demanding practices I've ever been a part of in my 25 years of coaching," Cameron says. "We want to play offense the way they play defense—smart, physical, aggressive."
It's probably a good thing that so many of the key offensive components—Cameron, Flacco, second-year quarterback Troy Smith, second-year left tackle Jared Gaither, rookie running back Ray Rice—all have been Ravens for 17 months or less. They haven't been immersed in the defense-is-God mentality that pervades the franchise. Harbaugh has done his part, preaching unit equality and rearranging lockers so that the defensive players aren't separated from their offensive brethren. But he also knows the offense has to earn respect.
"The phrase the guys on offense are using is, 'Little brother's not backing down anymore,'" Harbaugh says. "It's not about the offense versus the defense, and we're not going to have any 'We lost this game because of the offense' grumbling. That's a place to hide, not a solution. At some point we're going to be a great offense. I don't know if it's going to be by opening day, Week 3 or Year 3. But until then all three phases of this team are going to pick each other up."
During camp the coaches increased the tempo. In every offense-versus-defense drill, Cameron had the play clock running, and during one 10-play drive led by Smith every snap came with at least 10 seconds left on the clock. "We want to pressure the defense," Flacco says. The only way to do that is by moving the chains, and to do that Smith and Flacco have to be more accurate than their predecessors. Under Billick the Ravens ranked in the top 10 in the league in completion percentage only once. "It's all about recognizing the defense and being fast at this level," says Flacco. "I need to make decisions quicker, which is why it's good for us to be playing at such a fast pace."
Says Cameron, "I've seen the play clock strangle young quarterbacks. We're going to train them to play fast so it doesn't."
The foundation of the new offense is a renewed emphasis on the run—at the least, rushing on more than 43% of the snaps as Baltimore did last year in going 5--11. Willis McGahee may match his 294 carries of 2007, but this season he'll get help from a No. 2 back. Rice, a second-round pick who had 715 carries over his last two seasons at Rutgers, could be on the field 50% of the time in single- and two-back formations. "At the tempo we're going to play," says Cameron, "you've got to have two good backs stay fresh. Ray's so much better than we thought on draft day. His route running, his hands, his pass protection all complement his running."
The only way Baltimore contends for a playoff spot is if McGahee and Rice can carry the offense until one of the young quarterbacks gets settled and, of course, the defense remains formidable.
PROJECTED STARTING LINEUP WITH 2007 STATISTICS COACH JOHN HARBAUGH (0--0 in NFL), first season with Ravens