Tue., Aug. 4: Who's Winning The Key Position Battles?
WIDE RECEIVER, KICKER, INSIDE 'BACKER JOBS AT STAKE; A. TERRY DONE
By Joe Platania
Tuesday, August 4, 2009
WESTMINSTER -- Just like Ted Marchibroda's Ravens training camps that ran from 1996 to 1998, John Harbaugh is working his team very hard on the playing fields of McDaniel College.
Just like Marchibroda, Harbaugh has his team in full pads more often than not and has them run through live periods several times to get them exactly right.
Just like Marchibroda, Harbaugh has a lot of years in the game and has an experienced staff around him ready to impart every piece of knowledge available.
However, the two training camp styles have one significant difference.
Media observers often noted that Marchibroda's usually veteran-laden teams featured plenty of contented older players who had no one behind them pushing for their jobs.
Competition gave way to complacency, which gave way to poor on-field work habits. Remember how many second-half and fourth-quarter leads the Ravens let slip away in their first three seasons?
At the start of every team's training camp, the phrase "position battles" gets thrown around a lot, but they are a necessary part of any team-building period.
When handled the right way, competition makes everyone better, a rising tide that lifts all boats.
Marchibroda's camps didn't have nearly enough of that, but in his second year as head coach, Harbaugh finds himself with a possible Super Bowl contender that has major questions in three main areas.
Approximately a week and a half into this year's four-week camp, who is winning the key position battles? Let's take a look:
Number of players: 11. Number of spots likely on Week One roster: five.
Charles Dickens should be coaching this unit, for it's a tale of two groups.
The upper echelon features "Z" (flanker) Derrick Mason and "X" (split end) Mark Clayton. Backing them up, respectively, are 2008 fourth-round draft pick Marcus Smith and speedy 2006 fourth-rounder Demetrius Williams.
At the back end of the depth chart are a batch of street free agents signed in order to keep the numbers up. There didn't seem to be any real hope that Eron Riley, Biren Ealy, Thomas White or Jayson Foster would strike oil and make the team, although Foster's speed is impressive.
The way we see it, that leaves just three players fighting for one spot. All of them have the size the Ravens never seem to have at the position, but only one has experience.
That would be unrestricted free-agent pickup Kelley Washington (6'3, 217), who may have just come from New England, but spent enough time with Cincinnati to know the AFC North Division defenses pretty well.
On previous teams, Washington has never been more than a second or third option. But, he does have enough field savvy to at least make defenses account for him.
Ernie Wheelwright (6'5, 217) is in his second year in the Ravens' system and is trying to be more physical in going for the ball. He definitely shows more initiative going to the ball than 2008 seventh-round pick Justin Harper (6'3, 215), but Harper runs better routes.
PREDICTION: For now, we see Washington winning the final spot by a small margin over Harper, who was one of a record 19 Ravens put on injured reserve last year. If Harper stays healthy, a year on the practice squad could help him.
Number of players: Seven. Number of spots likely on Week One roster: Four.
One spot was locked down two Presidential administrations ago when Ray Lewis took the field for his 1996 rookie season.
The battle is for the position next to Lewis, one that was vacated by brash undrafted free agent Bart Scott, who followed former defensive coordinator Rex Ryan when the latter was named head coach of the New York Jets.
The ranks of those who didn't hear their name called in April are once again making their presence felt. Dannell Ellerbe can hit hard and has quite a motor and second-year man Jameel McClain is a fast learner, having played on the outside last year.
Fifth-round draft pick Jason Phillips didn't practice for most of the first portion of training camp, veteran Brendan Ayanbadejo has been slowed by injuries and rookie Tony Fein has not stood out just yet.
That leaves last year's third-round pick, Tavares Gooden. He has good size (6'1, 242), a rangy and athletic build and a nose for the ball. In a defense where playmaking is a key, his ability -- and the investment the team has in him -- gives him the edge.
PREDICTION: It's Gooden's job to lose, and we don't think he will. McClain's versatility and special teams presence will keep him around. Even though he has been to mulitple Pro Bowls, Ayanbadejo must get healthy or Ellerbe could surprise.
Number of players: Two. Number of spots likely on Week One roster: One.
This is an all-Atlantic Coast Conference battle between North Carolina State grad Steven Hauschka -- who got to attempt two field goals last year and did well on kickoffs -- and Florida State alum Graham Gano, the most recent Lou Groza Award winner (given to the nation's best kicker).
Even though Hauschka has one more year of NFL experience than Gano, the score is only 1-0. Not only that, the two have matched each other kick for kick during organized team activity (OTA) practices as well as training camp.
Both are hitting over 90% of their kicks, each missing a few long-range boots here and there. Both have good kickoff distance, which has been a Ravens' weak point in the past.
Gano does seem to get the ball higher more consistently, which is curious considering that Hauschka is three inches taller and ten pounds heavier.
PREDICTION: Too close to call right now. Harbaugh wants to see how they perform in pressure-filled game situations. Late-game strategy in August -- usually the nondescript refuge of the roster's dregs -- could be interesting to watch as the coach tries to maneuver his guys into positions where they have to make a big kick.
JOEY P'S TRIVIA TIME: While there may be no prizes in it for you, Trivia Time is just another way we at PressBox have fun whetting your appetite (and ours) for the season to come.
In 13 full seasons in Baltimore, the Ravens have earned exactly 60 Pro Bowl berths, an average of approximately 4.5 per season.
Not surprisingly, the majority of them have come from the defensive side of the ball, 36 of them, to be exact. The offense has had 18 and special teamers have been awarded six Pro Bowl trips.
Who was the Ravens' first-ever defensive Pro Bowl pick?
The answer appears towards the end of this column.
TERRY HEADED FOR IR?: A second straight sunny, cloudless day greeted the team for yet another hard-hitting, padded practice.
But the session began without 2005 second-round draft pick Adam Terry, who is likely to be put on season-ending injured reserve after his most recent knee surgery didn't prove to be successful in dealing with the cartilage problems he reportedly has.
In order to find a replacement, two unidentified players were worked out on the practice fields before the morning session in front of Ravens player personnel director Eric DeCosta, pro personnel head Vince Newsome, assistant pro personnel head Chad Alexander, director of college scouting Joe Hortiz, Southeast area scout Joe Douglas and offensive line coaches John Matsko and Andy Moeller, among others.
The prospects were put through a battery of tests, including a 20-yard dash, agility and blocking drills and some sled work.
A few other practice highlights:
- When the second-string offense was called onto the field, it was John Beck and not Troy Smith that lined up behind center.
- Running back Jalen Parmele caught a short pass and was instantly hit hard by safety Tom Zbikowski. Later, Parmele put on a nice Ray Rice-esque cutback move that drew a reaction from the fans.
- Safety Haruki Nakamura blitzed through the A-gap (between guard and center) and "sacked" Smith.
- A hard rush by Jarret Johnson to Jared Gaither's inside forced Joe Flacco to bring the ball down and run.
- Derrick Mason looks ready to steal bases for the Orioles. He slid to the ground several times to gather in passes; on one occasion, he ended up in the crowd where a woman snapped his photo and screamed, "That was awesome!"
- Both kickers tried pooch-punting out of field-goal formation. Hauschka's attempt traveled just 16 yards to the 19, but Gano rolled his to the 1. Both hit plenty of field goals, but a 50-yard Hauschka try went wide right.
- Kelley Washington beat Domonique Foxworth to the corner of the end zone for a touchdown, after which he did the Ray Lewis pregame dance.
- Harper had a busy morning, leaping over Chris Carr for a one-handed touchdown and beating Lardarius Webb to the corner of the end zone. But on a slant over the middle, Frank Walker got inside Harper and made the pickoff.
- Joe Flacco and center Matt Birk botched several snap exchanges, including one in shotgun formation.
INJURY REPORT: Cornerback Samari Rolle (groin, shoulder) is the only player left on the Physically Unable To Perform (PUP) list after Terry's relegation and Yamon Figurs' long-awaited reactivation Tuesday.
Hauschka and defensive tackle Justin Bannan returned to the field after Monday's day off.
Guard Ben Grubbs had to leave the field for a second straight day, but returned to practice. Tight end Edgar Jones went to the ground and appeared shaken up, but he also got back in the session.
Mason had a routine calf rubdown on the sidelines.
Tight end LJ Smith (hamstring) suited up for the first time since last Tuesday, but new absences came from tackle Stefan Rodgers (right leg), wideout Biren Ealy (who had returned Monday from a Sunday absence) and linebacker Antwan Barnes (concussion).
Also missing the morning session were linebacker Terrell Suggs (heel), receiver Mark Clayton (hamstring), linebacker Brendan Ayanbadejo (sprained toe), defensive tackle Will Johnson (right leg), tight end Davon Drew (right ankle) and defensive lineman Lamar Divens (hip).
Clayton's hamstring is proving especially troublesome. Since he has not even shown himself on the field to at least soak up what's being worked on -- as many injured players often do -- this is a malady that could keep him out for the rest of training camp.
Rookie wideout Thomas White was absent with an unspecified condition.
DEFENSE RULES: It's no surprise that on most occasions through one week of training camp, the defense has clearly outperformed the offense.
After all, defense is what Baltimore pro football has been all about, from the Marchetti-Donovan-led teams of the Fifties, to the Sack Pack of the mid-70s, to the record-setting 2000 Ravens, to today.
Not only that, but the early portion of any football training camp is similar to the first two weeks of baseball spring training, in which the pitchers (defense) are invariably ahead of the hitters (offense).
All three Ravens quarterbacks have thrown numerous interceptions and ball carriers have been tackled for little or no gain. Receivers aren't getting much separation and aren't gaining yards after the catch.
However, Harbaugh has a different take on the matter.
“You know, the offense has had some moments, too," he said. "The offense (was) pushing the defense around a little bit when we first went live with the run stuff. So, it’s a two-way street.
"We always say it: both sides of the ball make the other side of the ball better. The better we play on defense the better our offense is going to be, so we want to see one side dominate. We want to see one side try to bury the other side if possible, because that’s going to make that side better the next day."
The offense responded Monday by scoring on all three fourth-and-goal situations from the one-yard line.
WALK THE LINE: The Ravens used to feature a large, run-oriented offensive line, but it has transitioned into a more athletic unit that can pass- and run-block with equal aplomb.
Lots of credit for the change in philosophy and coaching the players through it has gone to 18-year NFL veteran offensive line coach John Matsko and assistant Andy Moeller, whose father, Gary, was the head coach at a school (Michigan) known for producing good trench men.
Matt Birk has also been one of the league's best at his center position, and even though this is his first year in Baltimore -- replacing Jason Brown, who left for the St. Louis Rams in free agency -- the 33-year-old pivot understands why the Ravens' line and its coaches are among the league's best.
“They’re intense," Birk said of the Matsko-Moeller tandem. "A long time ago, my first offensive line coach in the league told me that a good offensive line coach (will see) his players take on his personality.
"I’m assuming you guys can see – unless you’ve got earplugs in during practice – coach Matsko and coach Moeller are pretty intense, and they don’t cut us any slack."
After just one season with the Ravens, the Matsko-Moeller-coached line can boast of a unit that gave up the second-lowest number of sacks over a single season (33) and -- on a team that had a record 19 players on injured reserve -- just one such starter, guard Marshal Yanda.
COMING HOME: Cornerback Domonique Foxworth used to be a regular in our "Alumni Report" feature, but we don't have to keep tabs on him now that he's a Raven.
Around the time the Ravens moved to Baltimore from Cleveland, it seemed as if every player originally from the shores of Lake Erie got plenty of national press whenever he stated that he wanted to go back home and play for the Cleveland Browns.
Offensive lineman Jim Pyne was a good example, publicly wanting to leave the Detroit Lions to become the Browns' first pick in the 1999 expansion draft.
But Foxworth, a Western Tech and University of Maryland graduate, has as good a grasp as anyone of what it means to come back home as a professional.
Foxworth spent the first part of his NFL career with the Denver Broncos and Atlanta Falcons.
"It’s great to be home, there’s nothing like it," Foxworth said. "I’m around friends and family every day, and obviously this team and being given the opportunity to be around this defense is (good).
"As much as I’ve been around Baltimore, I know that this city, that’s pretty much what this city represents. You go anywhere in the country, they ask you about (the HBO series) ‘The Wire’ and the Ravens’ defense. I’m one of them now, so it feels good.”
PURPLE POWER: Purple, the Ravens' fan club for women, held its special day at the morning practice, with approximately 500 members getting preferred seating at practice.
In previous years, the members would also take to the field for a flag football game, but that portion of the program was scrubbed this year.
However, teams around the league either have already formed such clubs or are in the process of doing so.
QUOTE OF THE DAY: When Derrick Mason first announced his retirement, it came through the previously unheard-of site Jocklife.com, a site owned by Mason's Colorado-based agent.
Now that Mason's back, is it still a relevant Web site? Hard to say, but Mason stuck up for it, of course.
“It was a good resource, wasn’t it?" Mason said, smiling. "It told you all I was retired and I did. I told you all nothing is permanent.
"Didn’t you all hear the interview the same day on ESPN? I said, ‘Nothing is permanent but death and taxes.’ That’s what I said.”
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Is there stuff in there you like, don't like or would like to see more of?
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TRIVIA TIME ANSWER: In 1996, safety Eric Turner earned the second of his two Pro Bowl selections, the first coming two years earlier when the Ravens franchise was still in Cleveland.
Turner and quarterback Vinny Testaverde were the Ravens' only Pro Bowl picks in '96; it was Testaverde's first Pro Bowl of his long career.
During his only season in Baltimore, Turner, a UCLA All-American, was second on the Ravens in tackles with 112 total stops (80 solos) in the Ravens' debut campaign. He also broke up 15 passes and grabbed five of his 30 career interceptions.
After five years in Cleveland and one with the Ravens, Turner -- the second overall pick in the 1991 draft -- jumped at the chance to play in his native California and moved on to the Oakland Raiders.
Turner played three years in Oakland before he died in May, 2000, of intestinal cancer at the age of 31.
ABOUT JOE PLATANIA
Ravens beat writer Joe Platania, 45, is a Baltimore native and has been a multi-award-winning sports journalist for 30 years, covering many different sports at all levels with insight, humor, a near-photographic memory and a keen, prescient eye.
A longtime member of the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association and the Pro Football Writers Association of America, Platania (pluh-TAN-ee-uh) will in 2009 enter his 16th season covering pro football, having manned the CFL Stallions beat for The Avenue Newspaper Group of Essex and the Ravens beat for The Avenue as well as several other publications and radio stations.
He is one of only three Baltimore-based print reporters to have covered the Ravens during their entire history.
Platania is a four-time Maryland-Delaware-District of Columbia Press Association award winner and was named Maryland Sportscaster of the Year in 1998 for his work on WCBM-AM (680).