We’re certainly entertaining plenty of discussion points as the Ravens grind through training camp and prepare to open their exhibition season Thursday night in Tampa. Some key issues have been resolved, while others remain less clear. Here’s a quick review of what we do and don’t know:
We KNOW that Michael Oher’s days as a flip-flopper are over. The veteran offensive lineman has gone back and forth between left and right tackle like a ping pong ball, switching sides almost annually. But the coaches liked him so much on the right side during last season’s playoff run that they’re leaving him there. When left tackle Bryant McKinnie was briefly sidelined at the start of this year’s camp and Kelechi Osemele replaced him, it was a sign that Oher had found a home.
We DON’T KNOW if Offensive Coordinator Jim Caldwell will parcel out carries to his running backs any differently. In 2012, Ray Rice had 257 carries and Bernard Pierce had 108 – roughly a 5-2 ratio. Both excelled, but some wonder if Pierce’s total will rise at Rice’s expense because Pierce performed so well down the stretch and in the playoffs. Caldwell asserted last week that Rice, coming off a Pro Bowl season, is still the “bell cow” and Pierce will still be used intermittently. It could be there’s no change. But let’s see how it plays out.
We KNOW that Justin Tucker didn’t need a training camp challenger to get himself ready for the season. The second-year kicker has exhibited a powerful, accurate leg throughout camp, putting the vast majority of his attempts through the uprights, even from crazy distances. A 71-yard attempt fell just short last week. Tucker has said he wants to improve on his strong rookie season and seems poised to do so. Meanwhile, Billy Cundiff is with his third team since the Ravens cut him and went with Tucker in last year’s preseason kicking competition. In hindsight, the choice looks pretty easy.
We DON’T KNOW whether the defense has good chemistry. There’s understandable excitement in camp about Defensive Coordinator Dean Pees’ unit because of the talents of newcomers such as Chris Canty, Elvis Dumervil, Matt Elam and others. But those talents still have to mesh with holdovers such as Terrell Suggs, Haloti Ngata, Art Jones and others. The unit has played well and exhibited strong camaraderie in camp, but good chemistry among a set of new, moving parts is an elusive, unquantifiable quality and you can’t safely say it exists until the games count and opposing offenses are providing challenges. To be continued.
We KNOW that McKinnie is no longer dealing with whatever issue kept him from playing much last season. He was dropped from the starting lineup when his conditioning was a concern at the start of camp, and he never really climbed out of that hole until the playoffs. The situation seemed set to reprise this year when another conditioning kerfuffle arose as camp started, but McKinnie has rebounded, showing that he can make it through practices. He’s running with the starters and the line is better for it. Looks like the case is closed.
We DON’T KNOW how many of the team’s top positional battles will turn out. Gino Gradkowski and A.Q. Shipley are in the midst of what Head Coach John Harbaugh called “a great battle” for the starting center spot. Corey Graham is probably playing well enough to keep his starting cornerback spot, but Jimmy Smith is making plays. Jacoby Jones is almost surely the No. 2 receiver, but the horde competing for the No. 3 slot includes Deonte Thompson, Tandon Doss, David Reed and LaQuan Williams, while rookie receivers Aaron Mellette and Marlon Brown, an undrafted free agent, have also made plays.
We KNOW the depth of the defensive front seven is going to be a major strength. There were games last season when Pees struggled to find enough quality players to rotate in because of injuries and the makeup of the roster, but he won’t struggle this year. Putting Ngata at nose tackle, as listed on the depth chart, provides ballast and sets up the rest of the unit. My guess is Canty and Art Jones will also start, with Marcus Spears and Brandon Williams leading those who rotate in. Meanwhile, the outside linebacker corps is crazy deep with Dumervil, Suggs, Courtney Upshaw and Pernell McPhee, and there is two-deep quality at inside linebacker, too. You’re talking more than a dozen guys for those front seven slots. No wonder Pees is smiling.
We DON’T KNOW whether the absence of Dennis Pitta is going to cause a major or minor problem. There’s no doubt quarterback Joe Flacco will miss the tight end who had developed into such a dangerous target, especially in the red zone. And now Pitta’s primary replacement, Ed Dickson, will miss the preseason opener with a slight hamstring tear, an injury that could easily wash away but also linger. One way or another, the Ravens need viable targets to catch balls over the middle, and if Dickson is out for any length of time, the situation is precarious to say the least.