After being absent the final two practices of last week, right guard Kevin Zeitler returned Monday to prepare for the season opener against the Las Vegas Raiders.
Baltimore's offensive line has faced some health challenges during training camp and the preseason. Zeitler missed time early in camp with a foot injury, while All-Pro left tackle Ronnie Stanley gradually ramped up his participation in August as he recovered from ankle surgery.
However, both started the final preseason game against Washington on August 28 and said his transition to Baltimore has gone well, after playing the past two years with the New York Giants. Zeitler said during camp that he does not think building quick chemistry will be an issue for the new starting offensive line once the season begins.
"I like this [offensive] line," Zeitler said. "There are a lot of veteran players, and I think we all like each other quite a bit, so I'm hoping that speeds it up."
Cornerback Jimmy Smith was not back on the field for the portion of practice open to the media, however. Smith has been out since Aug. 6, when he injured his ankle in practice.
Ravens Usually Come Out Flying in Week 1
Week 1 has been good to the Ravens under Harbaugh. Baltimore has won five straight season openers, including the last four by at least 20 points. The Ravens defeated Cleveland, 38-6, in Week 1 last year, and they also started the season with lopsided wins over the Miami Dolphins (59-10) in 2019 and Buffalo Bills (47-3) in 2018.
The Ravens' dominant Week 1 performances reflect well on their preparation for each season. However, Harbaugh is not taking anything for granted facing the Raiders, who will be playing their first regular-season game with fans at Allegiant Stadium, where fans were not allowed last season due to COVID-19.
"We've played well in those games, but this is a new game," Harbaugh said. "This is a different opponent, it's a new year. Nothing counts. You can't look back, you have to look forward. We just have to get ourselves ready to play this game against a very good Raiders team. They have an established program. They're very physical up front on both sides. You can see that; that's what they want to be. They have speed. They have a veteran quarterback. They have a new defensive system. They have a very good special teams coordinator, and all those things that go into play that we're trying to take into account."
Raiders Tight End Darren Waller Is Matchup Problem
The Ravens are very familiar with Raiders Pro Bowl tight end Darren Waller, who began his career in Baltimore. Waller has become one of the NFL's top tight ends, coming off a career-best season with 107 catches, 1,196 yards and nine touchdowns.
Containing Waller will be a priority for the Ravens and they may be without Smith. Smith often matches up with tight ends due to his size and athleticism. At 6-foot-6, 255 pounds, Waller presents a combination of size and speed that defenses do not see every week.
Regardless of who defends Waller, safety Chuck Clark said it will be a tough assignment. Clark remembers battling Waller in practices before the Raiders signed him off Baltimore's practice squad in 2018.
"He can make plays, he's big, and he's fast," Clark said. "We knew what type of matchup threat he was, for sure – definitely."
Preparation for Raiders Started Months Ago
When the NFL schedule was released on May 12, the Ravens found out that the Raiders would be the opponent Week 1. For coaches and studious players like Clark, it's never too early to prepare. Clark said he started breaking down Raiders tape months ago.
"You start looking at old film and watching stuff, and then once you get with the team, you start kind of putting things together," Clark said. "It's a nice process. We've been studying for a while. I feel everybody [did] – coaches, players, everybody. Once you get your iPad and you know who you've got the first couple of games, you start looking at a little film."
But no matter how much film is studied, teams don't reveal much during the preseason and make significant changes during the offseason. That creates more uncertainty for Week 1, but adds to the excitement.
"The biggest challenge is the unknown," Harbaugh said. "You just don't really know yourself until you play, and you don't know your opponent, because you haven't seen them on tape. It's one thing to watch them from last year, but they're different. The preseason doesn't tell you much. So, you just kind of go into the game without much information. You have a lot more information Game 2, and it builds steadily throughout the season. So, the unknown is the biggest thing."