Dear Coach Harbaugh,
It’s been a while since we’ve chatted, John, but I still can’t believe how quickly these last several months have passed. It’s wonderful to think that, in just a few hours, I’ll be sitting in M&T Bank Stadium watching your Ravens take the playing field for the first time in the 2009-10 NFL season.
I suppose not much has really changed since we last talked, John. Back in January, I was deliriously happy with the season you led your team on. The entire Raven fan base was proud of you. The only thing, we thought, the only thing, is that we’ve got to find some way to get quarterback Joe Flacco a few more weapons in his sophomore season. We liked the three-headed running back, John. We liked the aggressive, opportunistic and ball-hawking defense. Even in the passing game, we liked the toughness of Derrick Mason and the cool of Flacco.
But, we cried out almost universally, just give the fella a little more help next season.
With the addition of six-time Pro Bowl center Matt Birk and first round pick Michael Oher, the offensive line appears to have gotten better. Willis McGahee is in camp — and healthy — and Ray Rice is a year older and wiser, making him the current front-runner to get the majority of the carries out of the backfield. Add in Le’Ron McClain’s bruising running and what should be improved blocking skills after a year playing with Lorenzo Neal, and the running backs seem to have collectively improved as well.
But wide receiver is about the same, John.
Derrick Mason, Mark Clayton and Demetrius Williams will be Flacco’s guys outside. Mason’s a pro, he’s proven — but the other two must showed marked improvement if the Ravens are to get through the Steelers in the AFC North. Tonight marks the offense’s first opportunity to show that they have improved from 2008 to 2009.
Here’s what I’ll be looking for tonight, John:
1) Wait. Mason and Clayton are both out for tonight with injuries? Oops. Well, there goes the idea that the offense will have the opportunity to show improvement.
Or does it?
With their top two receivers off the field, Ravens coaches will be able to see which of the remaining wideouts — a group led by the tantalizingly-measurable Williams — are capable of performing well in a game situation. Young guys who otherwise may not have seen the field should be given the opportunity to accrue snaps with the first team.
It may be wishful thinking, but in the quarter-or-less Flacco and the first team is likely to play in this first preseason game, it’d be encouraging to see the QB hook up with a receiver for a long gain. Not only would it perhaps shine the spotlight toward a receiver that could help the Ravens this season, but it’d help ease the fears of some fans who have been reading reports that Flacco has been inaccurate on the long ball for much of Training Camp. One deep strike may be all it takes.
2) It’ll be interesting to see how the running backs are handled. Rice should receive the start, but that doesn’t mean much. How many carries will he be given compared to McGahee and the fullback McClain? In what situations will those carries be given? Last season, Rice was often the third-down back. Does McGahee — a decent receiver out of the backfield — take that role?
The only situation that should be covered is short yardage, where surely Cam Cameron will turn to the 260-pound McClain, who gained more than 900 yards and scored 10 touchdowns last season.
3) If Washington comes out running the ball, we may get to see the impact of Kelly Gregg returning to the defensive line. Gregg missed all of last season with injury, allowing fellow defensive tackle Haloti Ngata to take the spotlight on the line.
Ngata responded by putting together a Pro Bowl-caliber season, and is being recognized as one of the top tackles in the league heading into 2009. Adding Gregg back into the mix further strengthens the interior of the defense, already perhaps the team’s greatest strength.
4) You were the special teams coordinator in Philadelphia before coming to Baltimore, John, so let’s talk about your specialty.
Who’s going to return kicks for your Ravens?
Reports have stated that Chris Carr may have a leg up on Yamon Figurs, who started last season as the team’s kick returner. Rice was also catching punts while I watched last Friday’s special teams practice, however.
I’m guessing, John, that Rice is your last choice to be the primary kick returner, given how integral he is expected to be in the offense this season.
Still, there’s certainly a competition taking place right now, perhaps most directly between Carr and Figurs. Figurs may feel he has something to prove after his poor performance in the role last season — he certainly has the speed to make a game-changing play.
It will be interesting to see how touches are handled in punt-return situations this evening.
5) The other special teams point, John, is of course the kicking situation. Reports have second-year man Steve Hauschka and rookie Graham Gano in a virtual dead heat. Both have strong legs and both are making kicks in practice.
Of course, we all know things are different in game situations, John. And in clutch situations.
In a preseason game you won’t be able to simulate the intense pressure of a fourth quarter 40-yard attempt with the game on the line in the AFC playoffs Divisional round. That’s the luxury of having a guy like Matt Stover as your kicker: you’re quite confident he can make that kick against the Tennessee Titans in Nashville.
With Hauschka and Gano, it’s considerably less certain.
That doesn’t mean you throw in the towel just because you can’t simulate that kind of adrenaline rush. Even though tonight is just a preseason game, the performance and demeanor of Hauschka and Gano in a live situation, in front of 70,000-plus, can still be a telling and educational experience for the coaches evaluating the two kickers.
I’m excited, John, for sure. Let’s get this one kicked off and see where we’re at.