Saturday, July 31, 2010
Look for Ravens to lean on offense
By John Clayton ESPN.com
Baltimore Ravens QB Joe Flacco threw for 3,613 yards and 21 touchdowns last season.
WESTMINSTER, Md. -- Through much of the offseason, the Baltimore Ravens seemed like a good pick to win the AFC North. The Pittsburgh Steelers will be without Ben Roethlisberger for at least the first four games, lost right tackle Willie Colon for the season and traded wide receiver Santonio Holmes to the New York Jets. The Cincinnati Bengals may be more talented than they were last season, but remember that they still needed a 6-0 divisional record to win the North in 2009. And the Cleveland Browns? Well, they're rebuilding.
On Thursday, a lot changed for the Ravens when cornerback Domonique Foxworth blew out his ACL in a noncontact, orientation practice. The loss of rookie second-round pick Sergio Kindle because of a fractured skull hurts, but Foxworth's injury is a major blow because he plays the team's most questionable position.
Suddenly, a Ravens team built for more than a decade on defense may have to rely on its offense if it wants to win the AFC North.
Here are the three key observations from Ravens camp:
1. Could things be so bad that the Ravens reach out to Chris McAlister? All options are open at cornerback, perhaps even the 33-year-old McAlister, a former Raven who let the team know he was available late last season. He's a free agent.
Other than the Detroit Lions, who treated their secondary like a tossed salad and just threw in new players last year, no team has endured more problems in the secondary than the Ravens. Cornerbacks Fabian Washington and Lardarius Webb are coming off knee reconstructions, and there is no guarantee Webb will be available for the opener. Samari Rolle retired. Cornerback Cary Williams will miss the first two games of the season for violating the NFL's personal conduct policy.
Also, safety Ed Reed isn't sure his bad hip will be ready for the opener, and if that's the case Reed could be placed on injured reserve and miss the first six games. That leaves Washington, Chris Carr, Travis Fisher, Walt Harris and the waiver wire to fill the key coverage positions. Fisher and Harris, who turns 36 on Aug. 10, have been added since mid-May.
To his credit, Ravens coach John Harbaugh remains positive. He accurately noted the team scrambled all last season with a beat-up secondary and that the unit improved as the season progressed. The first six games in 2010 will be the key -- especially the first two games against the Jets and Bengals, the teams with the most improved passing games in the league. Former Ravens defensive coordinator Rex Ryan will throw Braylon Edwards, Jerricho Cotchery and Laveranues Coles against Baltimore in Week 1. In Week 2, Cincinnati will deploy Chad Ochocinco, Terrell Owens and Antonio Bryant against the Ravens.
2. Improved passing offense. For all the issues in the secondary, Harbaugh can counter with the fact the Ravens might have the most improved passing offense in the NFL. Offensively, the Ravens are a powerhouse. Anquan Boldin has settled into the slot position as if he has been there for years, and Donte' Stallworth has been a pleasant surprise. Despite missing the 2009 season, Stallworth looks likes the fast Stallworth of old, and he's in the perfect role as more of a bit player. Baltimore can put him into three- and four-receiver sets and see how he stretches the field.
Offensive coordinator Cam Cameron knows the right mix of spread passing sets and power running formations to keep defenses off balance. He can flood secondaries with Boldin, Derrick Mason, Mark Clayton and Stallworth, but he can't keep fullback Le'Ron McClain off the field too much because he's one of the team's best players.
The Ravens are also blessed with a young offensive line that is emerging as one of the NFL's best. Michael Oher, who played right tackle last season, looks great at left tackle. Jared Gaither was a physical left tackle and will help on the right side, and Ben Grubbs should make the Pro Bowl at left guard. Tight ends Todd Heap, third-round pick Ed Dickson and fourth-round pick Dennis Pitta are also formidable.
3. Flacco is elite. Load up the mailbag, folks, I've come to the Joe Flacco portion of the Ravens visit. Every time I mention the words "elite" and "Flacco" my mailbox explodes. Watch him -- he's matured into a top-level quarterback right in front of our eyes. Now in his third year, the once-lean Flacco has filled out and is refining his skills. He has added a subtle pump fake to his throws that will drive cornerbacks crazy in tight coverage. The once-quiet leader has more swagger, and why not? He has put up great numbers in his two seasons, taking the Ravens to the playoffs and winning three playoff games on the road. What people didn't know last year was how badly he was injured: He had a bruise that extended from his right hip to his right ankle, robbing him of mobility and forcing him to spend too much time in the training room. General manager Ozzie Newsome did a smart thing bringing in veteran Marc Bulger, because Bulger can give Flacco a break if he takes a pounding. But the addition of Bulger could mean Troy Smith and/or John Beck might not make the team.
John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.