OWINGS MILLS, Md.- The words came out of right guard Marshal Yanda’s mouth today as he tried to motivate his teammates to work through the heat: “Embrace the Grind.” The saying can be seen as an unofficial motto of training camp. The team, filled to the brim with players, fight through the warm, sticky air that comes with an August in Maryland. Some players are simply going through the motions, preparing for another grind, that of the NFL regular season. Some have a set place on the squad, but are fighting for a position one slot higher on the depth chart. But the majority of these men are furiously scratching and clawing, fighting for every inch, and hoping that by then end of the preseason, they will have achieved their dream and earned a spot on an NFL team.
“Embrace the Grind” resonated throughout the entire practice today and was mentioned by Coach Harbaugh at his post-practice press conference. This was my first experience watching the Ravens practice this year, and although I was not completely impressed with the performance put on by the players today, all-in-all the team seemed to put in some very good work.
Here are some of my individual observations…
Haloti Ngata and Bryant McKinnie both returned to practice today after passing their conditioning tests this morning. Harbaugh said that it took a “diving effort at the end” of the test for McKinnie to pass, something that should not surprise anyone. Both players were only in shells and did not participate in full-team drills. Filling in for McKinnie was Michael Oher (Osemele took over Oher’s usual right tackle spot), and filling in for Ngata was a combination of Ryan McBean and Bryan Hall. I didn’t see anything spectacular from the replacements, but I also did not see any real negative play, either.
Matt Birk was missing for the fifth straight day of practice. Harbaugh attributed it to a combination of “slowing down” the veteran center as well as some back spasms that he had been experiencing. Filling in for Birk on the line was rookie center Gino Gradkowski, a player that could be used as a sort of “swing guy” this season, filling in at many different positions among this aging offensive line.
Some more quick injury notes: Jimmy Smith was out of practice with a tight back. Harbaugh said that he should be back in a few days and that the injury is something that happened to Smith during his college days at Colorado, as well. Fullback Vonta Leach also missed practice because his back tightened up. Have back problems just become a virus that just spread through the team now? Other notables missing from practice include Cary Williams, Dannell Ellerbe, and rookie Asa Jackson.
Rookie kicker Justin Tucker continues to make a case to be the starting kicker when the team opens their season against the Bengals on September 10th. The former Longhorn was 5-for-6 today on field goal tries, his only miss coming on a 60-yard field goal in which he was just short. A little more power and the kick would have gone straight through the uprights. Tucker made kicks from 30, 40, 42, 46, and 53 yards out, each kick easily clearing the bar for 3 points. Billy Cundiff did not kick today, so he could not provide any answer to Tucker’s impressive performance. Many thought of Tucker as motivation for Cundiff in camp and nothing more. The Ravens still need to see how the rookie does in the preseason, but if he continues to perform at the level he is at right now, don’t be surprised if the kicker is wearing number 6, not 7.
Finally, some notes on the full-team practice.
Anquan Boldin was featured in the slot of many of the first-team offensive sets. Look for Boldin to control the middle of the field, while Jacoby Jones and Torrey Smith stretch the defense deep. If Jones and Smith are effective in stretching the field, look for Boldin to have a huge season….
…Unless he’s being covered by Corey Graham. With injuries to Smith and Williams, Graham was featured a lot in nickel coverage, and in my opinion, played very well. I noticed on two separate occasions Graham play very tough defense on Boldin and prevent him from catching the ball. Word around the facility is that Graham is a very physical corner, something that is appreciated, but he will have to watch for pass interference calls as we get into the season.
Give my overall advantage (for what it’s worth) to the defense. The D was effective in forcing the offense into a lot check down plays (where have we heard that before) and was able to get substantial pressure on the quarterback. There was also more than one occasion where the running back would have been dropped in the backfield if they had been tackling. According to the other journalists who have been to every practice, it has bee very back and forth, but on this day, the Ravens defense in Baltimore conquered once again.