Ravens must balance opportunity with health in expanded preseason

July 11, 2018 | Luke Jones

Ravens rookies reported for the start of training camp on Wednesday, just a week after the Fourth of July holiday and two weeks before many other teams in the NFL begin their summer work.

The early start is the result of the Ravens’ first ever appearance in the Pro Football Hall of Fame Game against Chicago on Aug. 2, which falls a full week before the start of the usual preseason schedule for the rest of the league. Extra practice time is predictably met with lukewarm enthusiasm from most players — particularly veterans reporting to Owings Mills next Wednesday — but an extra week of workouts and the shortening of that summer dead period when players are on their own is any coach’s dream.

The longer training camp prompted head coach John Harbaugh to schedule two sets of joint practices: the first with the Los Angeles Rams in Owings Mills on Aug. 6 and 7 and the other sessions in Indianapolis before Baltimore’s third preseason game on Aug. 20. These will be the first joint practices for the Ravens since they traveled to Philadelphia to work with the Eagles in 2015 and will provide Harbaugh and his coaching staff a useful litmus test, especially against the talent-laden Rams coming off an NFC West title last year.

“We don’t have to pack quite as much into that time,” Harbaugh said last month, “which I think is a plus for us — especially with a young team and a young quarterback and three new receivers. It should benefit us.”

Harbaugh has already confirmed that most veterans will not play in the Hall of Fame Game in Canton, Ohio, but rookie first-round quarterback Lamar Jackson and the rest of a franchise-record-tying 12-man draft class playing in an extra preseason game has value. Considering how poorly the offense played for much of 2017 after Joe Flacco missed the entire preseason with a back injury, the veteran quarterback having an extra week of practice to continue building chemistry with newcomer receivers Michael Crabtree, John Brown, and Willie Snead is a bonus. And even a defense returning all but one player (reserve defensive back Lardarius Webb) from last season will benefit from extra sessions with new defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale and his revamped schemes.

But that all comes with a risk.

Players aren’t immune to injuries when even working out on their own, of course, but Harbaugh will be tasked with striking the right balance between maximizing the extra opportunities and keeping his team healthy before kicking off the 2018 season against Buffalo on Sept. 9. It’s no secret that injuries have been crippling at times with Baltimore ranking sixth or higher in adjusted games lost in two of the last three seasons, an undeniable factor in not making the playoffs since 2014.

Measures have been taken in recent years to combat health concerns by revamping the offseason conditioning program and installing natural grass at M&T Bank Stadium, but the Ravens had a whopping 13 players on injured reserve by the time the 2017 season kicked off in Cincinnati last September. That number didn’t include tight end Dennis Pitta’s career-ending hip injury in the spring or Flacco’s summer-long absence and preceded season-ending injuries to Marshal Yanda and Brett Urban in the first three weeks of the regular season.

Injuries are inevitable in such a violent game with each competitive rep presenting the risk for something to go awry, whether it’s one player rolling into another’s leg, a big hit, or a simple misstep trying to cut upfield. That’s why Harbaugh will pick his spots as he’s annually done to try to keep players — particularly his veterans — as healthy as possible.

The extended preseason should provide more opportunities for that built-in rest as well.

“More is not always more,” Harbaugh said. “We’re going to get more because of the time, but too much more would be too much. The ability to space that out a little bit, the fact that we can go hard and recover a little more because we have a little more time to do that is going to be a plus for us.”

A bigger plus would be a healthier roster when the real games begin, which will require disciplined planning and more luck than in recent years.