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 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."
"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.
STARTING LINEUP WITH 2007 STATISTICS COACH JOHN HARBAUGH (0--0 in NFL), first
season with Ravens