Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Training Camp Storylines: Meet the Ravens

Last night it took until all of the 5th inning for me to say to myself “this is going to be a walkoff.” The O’s bats did what they do so often- score big and then let it sit. Perhaps if they’d just allowed the Tigers to score first they would have come roaring back. But then again, I have no idea if the numbers back that up. In the offseason I’ll take a look at how often the Orioles really scored a number of runs and then just stopped scoring for the last 6 innings of the game. Either way, games like these break my heart, because they were so clearly in grasp. And now you see it coming, the rising specter of August… the National Football League. With the O’s starting what seems to be their annual free fall (though it is too soon to say for sure), I wanted to take a look at a couple of training camp storylines for the Baltimore Ravens that aren’t about Derrick Mason.

No Longer Playing it Safe with the Rookie
Let’s remember for a moment that Joe Flacco was not light-out last season. He was very good, but very good for a rookie. The playbook was highly limited for him, giving him one or two reads and letting him ease into the game. This team was playing cautious with him, doing everything they could to avoid him getting rattled or seeing him fail. Within this environment he played exceptionally well, but this year will be entirely different. Flacco will be given the entire playbook, and be given more responsibility at the line and in the passing game. Ravens fans will have to hope that he has not only developed mentally (which is to be expected from a second year in the league), but that he has also increased his accuracy on throws 5-15 yards from the line of scrimmage, which tended to sail on him last season, often to disastrous results.

Mike Preston is much more concerned than I am at Flacco’s apparent lack of precision at the start of this year’s training camp, but it will be something to keep an eye on. Even Kyle Boller was impressive at times in his rookie year. Baltimoreans have had 8 months to build up this young quarterback in their minds, let’s hope that even-keeled Joe Flacco can meet the heightened expectations.

Jim Leonhard Out, Dawan Landry Back In
In one season as a starter with the Ravens, Jim Leonhard became the best free safety this team has had lining up across from Ed Reed. He didn’t sit and wait for Reed to make big plays while he stayed back in his zone, he played all over the field, from fielding punts, blitzing, to making electrifying interceptions (particularly in the playoffs); playing hard and playing hurt on his way to becoming a fan favorite. Not much has been made of his departure to the Jets, as the Ravens have safety Dawan Landry back from his season-ending neck injury as well as promising young backups in Haruki Nakamora and Tom Zbikowski. However, it should be noted that Landry is a very different kind of safety than Leonhard. I have been a big fan of Landry’s due to his exceptional coverage skills, but Leonhard brought a unique kind of fire you can only find in a football player who’s 5’8”. Landry’s performance dropped off somewhat in his sophomore season; and with his third year gone he will have to return to his rookie form to secure his place in this defense. I believe that Landry will have a good year, but if not the loss of Leonhard could be much more harmful than Ravens fans- or the front office- expected.

Who Will Win the Running Back Duel?
I was the first one in line to cheer the Ravens when they brought in Willis McGahee. To me he was a running back with exceptional talent who had languished behind a substandard offensive line, and would explode with Baltimore to become one of the best backs in the league. Yea, I was that guy. So far in two seasons, he has been worth far less than the 2nd and 3rd round picks Ozzie Newsome surrendered to get him. After rushing for an impressive 1200 yards in his first season with the team, his production declined last season as injuries and his general performance put Le’Ron McClain in the spotlight instead. Those 1200 yards were nice, but for a team that is meticulous about running the football it wasn’t exactly eye popping. This offseason, Ray Rice has been given the green light for the starting job, though the coaching staff has yet to make any official word. McClain is moving back to fullback on a full-time basis (though I hope for their sake they keep giving him the ball now and then). The second year back out of Rutgers is much shiftier than McGahee and may even have more top-end speed, though it was difficult to tell with how rarely either back got into the open field. Much of this will depend on McGahee’s questionable health throughout camp, but it is likely that the Ravens 3rd running back in the three headed monster could accede to #1 by opening day.

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