Baltimore Still Football Town; Stadium Workout Is Proof
NOTEBOOK: RAVENS SIGN "SHAKESPEARE"; MILITARY SALUTED
By Joe Platania
M&T BANK STADIUM, BALTIMORE -- As welcome as the Orioles' resurgence has been this year, Charm City proved Saturday that it is still a football town.
A crowd of 20,324 -- the second time during the past three years attendance has exceeded the 20,000 mark -- was present for the first of the Ravens' three stadium-setting training-camp practices. They showed up despite the four-month-long baseball buzz, as well as hot and humid conditions.
Several newer and younger faces have been responsible for the baseball renaissance around here, and the Ravens are trying to transition to a newer-wave nucleus as well.
But head coach John Harbaugh cautioned earlier during the week that his younger players seemed a bit intimidated during last year's stadium workout and didn't perform as well. He also thought the sticky weather would play a role as he addressed the crowd before practice.
"It's going to be a typical practice," Harbaugh said. "Every single day, our guys have fought through it, but it'll be much hotter on the [SportExe Momentum] turf than it is in grass. But there will be a lot of good action."
This year, M&T Bank Stadium enters its 15th football season of operation, but it's also noteworthy that the turf is going into its 10th year of use.
Unlike baseball teams, football squads have the inclination -- not to mention the luxury -- of changing their turf a bit more often, if only for the reason that their facilities get used more often than baseball stadiums when it comes to collegiate- and high school-level events.
But the Ravens -- a team that won a Super Bowl and made the playoffs three times during a four-year span while playing on grass in their newer digs -- have had a similar run of success on the turf, which was cooking at triple-digit temperatures on Saturday.
But the hard-working Harbaugh wouldn't want his players to experience a stadium practice in any other conditions. Plus, the fact that the fans turned out in the numbers they did certainly did not escape his notice.
"Tonight was a great night," he said. "Everybody had a lot of fun. I saw the crowd that was building outside about a half hour before the gates opened.
"And when Ray [Lewis] and Ed [Reed] came out [onto the field], a lot of people were probably seeing them in person for the first time. I got goosebumps [from the crowd's reaction]. Practicing in front of a crowd like that was very helpful."
It even impressed those injured players that weren't able to participate, such as second-round pick and rookie pass rusher Courtney Upshaw.
Upshaw is the product of a University of Alabama program that regularly draws 90,000 for its annual spring game. The crowd number may have actually been a comedown for someone that has such an intense college following in his background.
"I'm going to avoid the comparison," Upshaw said with a smile. "I'm in Baltimore now, and being out here was a fun experience. I didn't get to practice, but it was a great experience."
Even though the pulse the Orioles have shown has cheered the local fans, the Ravens' constant state of contention has undoubtedly spoiled them; Baltimore is the only NFL team to have been to the playoffs the last four years.
That's quite an accomplishment, given the fact that five of the NFL's 12 playoff spots have turned over to new teams for 16 consecutive years. It puts a lot of pressure on a Baltimore team that was a stripped pass and missed field-goal try away from playing in last year's Super Bowl.
"I've been involved in football all my life," said free-agent pickup Jacoby Jones, expected to contribute in both the receiving corps and the return game this year. "Pressure is what you make it."
While playing for the Houston Texans last season, Jones' year ended in the Divisional Playoff round in Baltimore.
And, in a city known for experiencing baseball disappointment in September, it's the hope of Jones and his teammates that they don't let down the same fans in December, either.
PLAYER MOVE: When offensive lineman Paul Madsen was let go early Friday, the Ravens went through one practice slightly undermanned at 89 players.
But that didn't prove to be much of a problem, and the roster spot was filled Saturday with the addition of Stevie Baggs Jr., who went to Bethune-Cookman College.
Baggs, 6-foot-1 and 241 pounds, is a 30-year-old former Canadian Football League (Winnipeg, Edmonton, Saskatchewan, Hamilton) standout known as "Shakespeare" for his ability to make plays. His NFL experience is limited to stints with Detroit (2004-05) and Arizona (2010).
Baggs was a CFL Western Conference All-Star in 2009, when he played for the Saskatchewan Roughriders two years after they won their most recent Grey Cup championship.
It is unknown whether Baggs will be used at inside or outside linebacker, but with Josh Bynes and Dannell Ellerbe injured, and other players not as familiar with the system still working in camp, speculation could center on Baggs contributing more as an inside player.
Baggs was assigned jersey No. 40, which had not been issued at all during this year's camp.
INFIRMARY: Recently signed former Oakland Raiders linebacker Darryl Blackstock was flat on his back during the 7-on-7 period and had to leave the drill with a groin muscle injury, which Harbaugh said he didn't think was serious.
Also, tight end Ed Dickson got poked in the eye and was removed from practice as a precautionary measure.
But there was good news: two young defensive players that missed Friday's practice with unknown injuries, cornerback Asa Jackson and linebacker Dannell Ellerbe, returned to the field for the stadium workout, as did fullback Vonta Leach (back).
Kicker Billy Cundiff also returned from his day off to again join the kicking battle with upstart rookie Justin Tucker.
But wideout Patrick Williams (undisclosed) missed a fourth straight practice, third-round draft pick and rookie running back Bernard Pierce (hamstring) was out for a fifth consecutive day, as was linebacker Josh Bynes (undisclosed).
Not only that, cornerbacks Jimmy Smith (back) and Cary Williams (undisclosed) were out, a rather ironic development considering their battle for basically the same position.
Second-round pick and promising pass rusher Courtney Upshaw (shoulder) missed a sixth straight practice, the same length of time wideout Tandon Doss (hamstring) has missed, and defensive end Arthur Jones (hip) was out for a third straight day.
Defensive tackle Haloti Ngata (hamstring), who passed his conditioning test and returned to practice earlier this week, did not participate in team periods.
Linebacker Terrell Suggs (Achilles) is still on the Non-Football Injury list, and wideout David Reed (knee) and tackle/guard Jah Reid (calf) are both on the Physically Unable To Perform list.
Other expected long-term absences continued when center Matt Birk (idle) and tight end Dennis Pitta (broken hand) missed the stadium practice.
PRACTICE REPORT: Sunny, hot and humid conditions, exacerbated by a stiff due-east breeze, which brought humidity off the Chesapeake Bay, were in place for Saturday's padded stadium practice, the last in a six-day work week.
The players' second camp day off is Sunday. The team resumes practice Monday and Tuesday before flying to Atlanta on Wednesday for the first preseason game (7:30 p.m. Thursday; WMAR-TV, WBAL Plus; WIYY-FM), a contest for which the Ravens do not intend to have a game plan (see "Quote of the Day," below).
After a day off Friday and a regular practice Saturday, the next stadium-setting workout will be a 5 p.m. practice Sunday, Aug. 12, at Navy/Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in Annapolis.
A few Saturday stadium practice highlights:
- In the red zone, center Justin Boren snapped a ball over quarterback Joe Flacco's head and delivered another ball late, leading to an end-zone incompletion. Boren then lost his helmet while trying to avoid a pocket push up the middle by Ishmaa'ily Kitchen.
- Gino Gradkowski, for the time being, was bumped to the second unit to block for Tyrod Taylor, who found the underrated Logan Payne at the goal line for a touchdown. On that same unit, the monstrous Terrence Cody stood Damien Berry up at the goal line.
- Taylor looked more like a Wildcat-type quarterback during two plays, one where he circled right end for a touchdown, and another on a quarterback draw, which resulted in another six points.
- Jacoby Jones made a fine leaping catch on an end-zone fade route over the jumping breakup attempt of Jordan Mabin.
- Lardarius Webb tipped one of Taylor's passes near the goal line, but the ball fell into the hands of third-string tight end Davon Drew for a score. But Drew dropped an easy pass with no one around him in team drills.
- Cornerback Corey Graham has been having a solid camp, but he did not look back for the ball on an end-zone fade to the lanky Tommy Streeter, who easily gathered in the Taylor pass. Streeter then outjumped Danny Gorrer for a sideline pass, even though he did not get both feet down inbounds. Later, Streeter alertly reached up for a short, quick pass thrown behind him.
- Later, Graham showed the pride the secondary is taking in itself. After dropping a sure interception in the end zone, he kicked the ball out of play and did some push-ups. Also, cornerback Danny Gorrer nearly intercepted Flacco at midfield, but dropped the ball and did some push-ups right on the Ravens' midfield logo.
- Tackle Kelechi Osemele protected Flacco by throwing pass-rusher Paul Kruger to the ground. But during blitz drill, Kruger came unblocked off the left side and would have leveled Taylor if the drill had been live.
- During 7-on-7 drills, veteran wideout Anquan Boldin made a spectacular diving catch in the middle of the field just short of the goal line. Also, with Bernard Pierce out, running back Anthony Allen is improving his stock by showing good hands during these types of periods.
- During the full-team period, Taylor zipped three straight passes to backup running back Bobby Rainey, but one was called back because of a penalty.
- Flacco ran his two-minute period with Ramon Harewood at left tackle, Osemele on the right side and Gradkowski back at center. Chykie Brown broke up an end-zone pass for Torrey Smith, but Anquan Boldin got into the flat and was wide open for a score.
- Taylor's two-minute attempt got off to a bad start, as Brendon Ayanbadejo and Kruger broke up the first two passes. A false start on the third play didn't help, and the drive stalled.
- Fourth-string quarterback Chester Stewart got his chance to take snaps during the 7-on-7 period, but a poor attempt at a back-shoulder throw was intercepted by Lardarius Webb.
- Incumbent kicker Billy Cundiff went 5-for-5 during the first kicking period, with his longest coming from 54 yards. Justin Tucker topped that, kicking one from 63 yards -- tying the NFL record set by Tom Dempsey, Jason Elam and Sebastian Janikowski -- but falling just short from 65.
- During the two-minute periods, Cundiff got a great hand from the crowd after hitting a 57-yarder that would have been a game-winner in real action. Tucker's game-deciding kick from 48 yards was also good.
- Radio analyst and former Ravens receiver Qadry Ismail told the crowd that the one-on-one coverage drills were his favorite part of practice. "There's no better teaching drill, a wide receiver against a defensive back," he said. As he spoke those words, Jones burned Webb deep for a touchdown.
- Purveyors of classic rock and pop that heard material more to their liking at the UAPC practices got quite a shock at the stadium practice, when the playlist skewed much younger. For the most part, piped in over the public-address sytem were bands and artists such as Outkast, Justin Bieber, Lenny Kravitz, Lou Bega and other ultra-modern acts.
- Minority owner Art Modell, who turned 87 in June, chose the stadium practice to attend his first session of the year, sitting in his customary golf cart. Public-address host Gerry Sandusky drew a laugh when he said Modell had passed the Harbaugh pre-camp conditioning test.
- Noted television and radio actor Josh Charles, star of CBS' "The Good Wife" and nephew of PressBox publisher/founder Stan Charles, was also seen on the field.
MILITARY APPRECIATION DAY: Despite the conditions, several hundred military personnel were dressed in thick camouflage gear in the east end zone (where the players-entrance tunnel and the marching band seats are located) as part of the Ravens' annual Military Appreciation Day observance.
Harbaugh, a staunch advocate of the nation's troops -- he took part in the league's annual USO tour of the Middle East three years ago -- welcomed the 1,500-strong unit (a number that didn't include their family and friends in attendance) before the practice began.
"I want to thank the military for being here," the coach began. "To have the opportunity to be here, to enjoy a beautiful afternoon in Maryland, to watch a little bit of football, is because of what the military does for us.
"We can't be more grateful."
Friday, an American flag was sent to the Ravens from Camp Leatherneck in Afghanistan and presented to the team at midfield after Saturday's practice. Ray Lewis expressed the team's gratitude by saying, "There is no US of A without you guys."
When training camp was held in Westminster (1996-2010), the yearly observance usually involved the military personnel getting their own field-side seating section, as well as an opportunity to go down on the field and address the players after practice.
But when camp was moved back to the team's Under Armour Performance Center, it was a logistical challenge to come up with a way to have the troops out each year and treat them the way the team likes to see them treated.
Nonetheless, Harbaugh and the team noted that the troops have seemed happy to be involved, no matter what shape or form the observance took.
"What a tremendous attitude they have," the coach noted. "No question, we have great men and women overseas serving us. The opportunity to be here is what means the most."
QUOTE OF THE DAY: The M&T Bank Stadium crowd was certainly entertained by what it saw in Saturday's stadium workout. But according to Harbaugh, it won't necessarily translate into what they will see on the Georgia Dome turf next Thursday night.
"The game plan for Atlanta?" Harbaugh said. "We don't have one. We will not have one. The game plan will be to run our offense, defense and special teams -- pretty basic -- and evaluate guys and try to execute. That's what we're looking for."
(Our regular twice-daily Ravens Report rotation, complete with new Joey P's Trivia Time questions, will resume Monday and Tuesday.
(When the Ravens play the Falcons Thursday night, look for our usual thorough game-night coverage, with a recap and notebook posted roughly an hour after the final gun, if not sooner.
(After the Friday day off, Ravens Report will resume Saturday and Sunday, the latter day from the Annapolis stadium workout.)
Posted Aug. 4, 2012