Baltimore Ravens: First Impressions from Training Camp
The Baltimore Ravens have many questions to answer before the 2014 season, and some preliminary answers were received during the first few days of training camp.
There is still plenty of time for these plot lines to unfold, but the first impressions from Ravens camp were informative.
Defenses normally have the advantage early in training camp, but that wasn’t the case in Baltimore—despite the fact that the offense is working to install a new system. Instead, the offense looks sharp while problems on the defense are emerging.
For example, both Steve Smith Sr. and Joe Flacco continued their impressive play. This is a terrific sign for the offense, since Flacco carries the keys to the offense and Smith could emerge as his go-to target.
On the contrary, their success has spelled trouble for the defense. The secondary, in particular, has struggled early in the training camp.
These are the early takeaways from training camp that could end up shaping Baltimore’s 2014 season.
Steve Smith Is Putting on a Show
The Ravens’ signing of Steve Smith Sr. wasn’t considered a consensus “home run” because of the length of the deal (three years), Smith’s age (35 years old) and his subpar 2013 season (he averaged less than 50 yards per game for only the second time since his rookie season).
In practices and in the locker room, however, Smith has looked like an absolute steal—and that trend has continued into training camp, according to Jamison Hensley of ESPN:
Wide receiver Steve Smith put on a show in his first training camp practice with the Ravens. He started by faking out cornerback Lardarius Webb to get open for an out route and then beat Chykie Brown and Webb again on deep passes. The Ravens expected Smith to raise the intensity level of practice when they signed him as a free agent. He certainly didn't disappoint.
Smith had his way with the Ravens cornerbacks in training camp, building off an impressive series of OTAs and minicamp practices.
It certainly looks like Smith has enough gas left in the tank to become a dangerous weapon for this Ravens offense.
Secondary Looks Vulnerable to Big Passing Plays
Unfortunately, Steve Smith’s dominance in training camp isn’t all good news for Baltimore. Smith’s excellence came at the expense of the Ravens cornerbacks, and big plays were once again a problem for the defense early in training camp.
Communication issues and missed assignments plagued the defense last season, as the Ravens led the league in giving up 17 passing plays of 40-plus yards.
The secondary is once again the weak link for the Baltimore defense, and the same Achilles’ heel has presented itself in training camp.
Defensive coordinator Dean Pees was unhappy with the performance, as reported by Ryan Mink on BaltimoreRavens.com:
What we can’t do is get balls up over the top, and I’m a little disappointed in the first three days. We’ve got to do better than what we’re doing.
It’s still early and there is enough time to shore up the secondary, but it’s an early concern for the Ravens’ 2014 season.
Chykie Brown’s Shaky Start
The secondary problems come down to a lack of established talent outside of Lardarius Webb, Jimmy Smith and Matt Elam. There are glaring holes on the depth chart at free safety and No. 3 CB, and Chykie Brown is one of the candidates competing for that nickel corner spot.
He’s been handling first-team reps with Webb nursing a minor injury but has had a slow start in training camp and hasn’t looked ready to take on such a prominent role in the defense. In his training camp notes, Jamison Hensley of ESPN broke down Brown’s struggles:
One of the lasting images of the first three days of camp has been Brown getting beat on deep passes. It happened twice Saturday, when Jacoby Jones and Steve Smith both caught throws downfield against Brown.
On the first big play allowed, Brown got burned by Jones, who outran him for a 65-yard touchdown. On the second one, Brown ran with Smith but couldn't finish the play.
Brown has the size and length to make an impact, but he’s always had trouble locating the football—something that secondary coach Steve Spagnuolo mentioned in his training camp presser (h/t to Hensley):
It’s kind of that point of confrontation when the ball is arriving that we really need to work at, and he knows that. He needs to be able to turn and find the football and make a play when the situation calls for him to do that. He has all the ability in the world, and he works his butt off, and anytime you can work with a guy like that, we’ll get somewhere.
Jimmy Smith struggled with the same problem earlier in his career, so it’s not like Brown is a lost cause, but the Ravens may need to look elsewhere on the roster to replace Corey Graham.
Haloti Ngata Is Fully Healthy
Haloti Ngata can be one of the most dominant players in the NFL, but he didn’t play to his jaw-dropping potential in 2013. He was still very effective as a space-eater, but he wasn’t wreaking havoc in the trenches as he normally does.
Part of the reason for that was injury. He’s had to battle through nagging injuries that have limited his effectiveness in the past two seasons, but he’s feeling completely healthy this training camp, according to Aaron Wilson of The Baltimore Sun:
I feel great. This is the best I’ve felt in the offseason. My knees feel great, shoulders, it’s just the best I’ve felt in the offseason and I’ve been able to train a full offseason. Previous years I’ve had some type of injury or lingering injuries.
Ryan Mink of BaltimoreRavens.com reveals that one of Ngata’s primary goals this offseason has been to shed weight. He’s fared very well in that endeavor and is down to around 315 pounds according to Mink.
The reduced weight should hopefully take some of the wear and tear off his legs and improve his quickness and agility.
Figuring out the best playing weight is something that will sort itself out during training camp, but the fact that Ngata is in such great shape bodes tremendously well for the Ravens.
Joe Flacco Has Looked Sharp
The most fascinating storyline of training camp will be how the Ravens are acclimating to their new offense. That starts with Joe Flacco, and he’s impressed his new offensive coordinator so far, according to Ryan Mink of BaltimoreRavens.com:
The most important thing is [Joe Flacco] has adjusted extremely well. He has to lead the pack, and he’s done that from Day 1. He has a total command of what’s going on right now and he’s trying to figure out the things he’s very comfortable with. With the things he’s not [comfortable with], I have to get him comfortable.
His ability to go through progressions, to me, is exceptional. He’s bought into the boom-boom-boom stuff we teach as far as your feet [go]. We teach guys to read with their feet and get the ball going.
There’s not a play Joe can’t make. It’s fun for me to work with [him]. I’ve had a chance to work with some really good ones, and this has been a lot of fun. I’m looking forward to him doing big things this year.
Despite receiving criticism regarding his “work ethic” over the offseason, Gary Kubiak has repeatedly voiced his pleasure with Flacco’s command of the offense and his familiarity with the offensive scheme.
With an improved array of targets before him and Kubiak in his ear, all signs are pointing toward a breakout season for the man they call “Joe Cool.”
Shehan Peiris is B/R's Lead Featured Columnist covering the Baltimore Ravens and a co-host of Ravens Central Radio, a weekly podcast on the Pro Football Central radio network that focuses on all things Ravens-related.
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