Assertive Flacco wants to attack
Instead of nursing leads, Ravens QB eager to deliver knockout blows
BALTIMORE -- One of the reasons Ozzie Newsome is one of the game's best general managers is his ability to solve problems.
For years, it seemed the Ravens lacked speed at receiver. He found faster receivers. Two years ago, the Ravens were precariously thin at cornerback. Now they are deep.
It also helps to have a great staff of coaches headed by John Harbaugh. Harbaugh and his staff know how to develop young talent, while locker room leaders such as Ray Lewis and Ed Reed keep players accountable.
As they put this puzzle together in training camp, Newsome and Harbaugh are looking for the final pieces that can turn this perennial playoff team into a Super Bowl champ.
Here are five observations from Ravens camp:
1. Flacco on the offensive: Teammates, coaches and beat reporters rave about Joe Flacco's training camp. Throwing the ball has never been a problem. Flacco has one of the strongest arms in football. He has won playoff games on the road. But this is clearly his best training camp in terms of focus and execution. In camp, Flacco has taken even more of a leadership role on offense. He continues to suggest to coaches he wants the offense to be more aggressive in the latter stages of games. Instead of trying to run out the clock with a running offense when the Ravens have a fourth-quarter lead, he wants them to attack more with the pass. For more than a decade, the Ravens have been constructed to win with defense and good running. Flacco wants the Ravens not to be as cautious. Because the Ravens' defense is so good, Flacco thinks the Ravens should go for the jugular. Instead of sitting on 17-3 leads that could end up being 20-17 victories, Flacco wants more offense and more points. Not a bad idea. He also suggests more passes on early downs, so the offense isn't stuck with too many tough third-down situations. From what he hears and what he sees from Flacco this summer, Harbaugh believes his quarterback will have a breakout year.
2. These Ravens can fly: Matching up against good man-to-man defenses has been a big problem for the Ravens. Offensive coordinator Cam Cameron would call for three-receiver plays, but the receivers often didn't separate from corners in press man coverage. That caused Flacco to hold the ball until either halfback Ray Rice or one of his tight ends popped open, leading to criticism he was holding the ball too long. Newsome started rebuilding the receiving corps last season by drafting Torrey Smith. Smith has exceptional speed and was very good on deep routes. Now, he has worked on his short routes and crossing patterns, and he is a threat on all routes. Once Jacoby Jones was cut by the Texans this past spring, Newsome jumped on him. Jones has a great chance to start and will pull coverage away from slot receiver Anquan Boldin and tight ends Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta, opening up the middle for the field for Flacco. LaQuan Williams and Tommy Streeter are fast. Overall, Newsome believes this is the fastest group of receivers he's ever put together.
3. Suddenly deep pool of corners: I remember going to Ravens camp two years ago the day after Domonique Foxworth blew out a knee and was lost for the season. The Ravens were devastated. Lardarius Webb was coming off knee surgery. The cornerback position was thin. Since then, the Ravens have rebuilt the unit with coverage cornerbacks. The best young prospect is Jimmy Smith, last year's first-round pick. Smith is a long, angular cornerback with shutdown potential. As a rookie, he was thrown into the fire after the lockout and played decently despite not having an offseason of coaching. Now, he knows the schemes and should have a great season. Webb is one of the better corners in the AFC North. Cary Williams would be good enough to start on other teams, but he's Baltimore's No. 3 corner. The Ravens signed Corey Graham from the Bears to be a special teams player, but he's done well enough to challenge for the fourth cornerback spot. The Ravens even have a couple of sleeper cornerbacks competing for roster spots.
4. The new Ray Lewis: Father Time can't catch Lewis. Despite being 37, Lewis keeps finding new ways to keep his body young and his No. 52 on the field. During the offseason, he bought an Olympic-style bicycle and started pedaling. Every day, he would bike a minimum of 20 miles to a maximum of 50. He was everywhere on his bike. Once, Kevin Byrne, the Ravens' longtime public relations expert and team vice president, was driving and reached a stoplight. Lewis pulled over to Byrne's car on a bike and knocked on his window. Lewis reported to camp more than 10 pounds lighter and could be in the mid-230-pound range. Staying light means staying quick, and staying quick will keep him on the field on passing downs.
5. Offensive line worries? Harbaugh believes the Ravens are solid along the offensive line, but the unit remains a concern. This year's draft may have produced a starting right tackle, Kelechi Osemele, and a future starting center or guard, Gino Gradkowski. Because the Ravens are competing for a Super Bowl, though, they would like to go with experience. They don't worry about injuries preventing center Matt Birk from practicing. He's 36 and doesn't need much practice time to get ready for the season. They believe 35-year-old Bobbie Williams will upgrade the blocking at left guard. The loose piece remains left tackle Bryant McKinnie, who is still trying to lose some weight to get on the practice field. If he loses the weight, he could slide into the left tackle spot, forcing Michael Oher to switch back to right tackle. If not, McKinnie could be a backup or he could simply be cut. To me, the line is a concern, but at least the Ravens have options.
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