Football coaches like to talk about “stacking days” during the grind of training camp, but that’s been hard for the Ravens’ offense to accomplish given that at least half of the projected offensive starters have been sidelined at one point or another since camp began a week ago.
If anything can be gleaned from Ravens training camp after the first week, it’s that they still don’t know what they have with their offense, given so many missing parts.
Starting quarterback Lamar Jackson (COVID), No. 2 running back Gus Edwards (COVID), All-Pro left tackle Ronnie Stanley (ankle) and top blocking tight end Nick Boyle (knee) have yet to see the field. Top wide receiver Marquise Brown (leg) practiced just twice before leaving with a leg injury that head coach John Harbaugh said is more problematic than initially thought.
Other offensive players have missed practice time as well, including starting right guard Kevin Zeitler (foot), receiver Miles Boykin (leg) and first-round rookie draft pick Rashod Bateman, who missed one practice with a muscle issue.
Predictably, the defense has had the upper hand during the first week, and the Ravens must hope that the offensive efficiency turns up a notch when No. 8 finally hits the field.
Jackson is in a 10-day isolation period per the NFL’s COVID protocols for unvaccinated players, and he is expected to make his training camp debut Aug. 6 or 7.
With Ravens players enjoying a well-earned off day from practice Aug. 5, here are five quick impressions of the first week of training camp:
1. This offense needs Lamar Jackson back on the field.
Backup quarterbacks Trace McSorley and Tyler Huntley have had some good moments and bad moments during the first week, and offensive coordinator Greg Roman is correct when he says those two are getting reps “that guys pray for.”
But overall in full-team drills, the offense has struggled to find any rhythm without Jackson. McSorley has probably been the more consistent quarterback, while Huntley has shown a bigger arm and greater open-field ability, but both are a big step back from Jackson, which, to be fair, holds true for nearly every other NFL team as well. Starters are starters for a reason.
In the Aug. 4 workout that focused on third-down work, the Ravens’ defense recorded three interceptions, two of which were returned for touchdowns by Anthony Averett and DeShon Elliott — with a big assist from Khalil Dorsey, who punched the ball loose from Eli Wolf — and quarterbacks were under constant pressure from the edge, up the middle, or from blitzing safeties.
Jackson has talked about building chemistry with his revamped receiver group including Sammy Watkins and rookies Rashod Bateman and Tylan Wallace, but that isn’t happening with Jackson in a COVID isolation protocol.
Roman said the Ravens still have “plenty of time” to get Jackson up to speed, with the first regular-season game still five weeks away, but privately, they must know there is some urgency given what this offense has looked like thus far.
2. The Ravens focused on the offensive line this offseason. That work isn’t done.
Lamar Jackson, Trace McSorley, Tyler Huntley, Kenji Bahar. It might not matter who the quarterback is if the Ravens can’t block, and the offensive line is a simmering problem. During the first week of practice, offensive linemen have too often been beaten off the edge, or up the middle, or have ended up on the ground.
As with the rest of the offense, there have been notable missing parts. All-Pro left tackle Ronnie Stanley (ankle) has yet to take the field, right guard Kevin Zeitler (foot) missed practice Aug. 4 and right tackle Alejandro Villanueva had a veteran day Aug. 3. The Ravens are mixing and matching a lot up front, and head coach John Harbaugh and line coach Joe D’Alessandris frequently say that they will try a lot of combinations this time of year, and that the best five will play.
Bradley Bozeman seems comfortable with his switch from left guard to center, and the left guard competition remains open, with Ben Powers, Ben Cleveland and Tyre Phillips the leading candidates.
But Stanley’s absence has illustrated a lack of depth at tackle, and Ravens edge rushers have frequently won the battles with the tackles setting up on both sides. All indications are that Stanley is on schedule for the regular season, and the Ravens must hope that’s the case.
3. With the pressure on, James Proche has delivered.
James Proche caught one pass last year as a rookie and lost the punt return job late in the season to Devin Duvernay. Then he watched the Ravens sign veteran Sammy Watkins and draft wide receivers Rashod Bateman and Tylan Wallace in the first and fourth rounds of the draft, respectively.
Proche had every reason to believe that he had to prove himself in camp this summer, and he has responded by being the most consistent receiver on the field.
At 5-foot-11 and 201 pounds, Proche isn’t the biggest receiver, but he has shown the ability to get open at every level of the field, and he has caught virtually everything thrown his way. He has also been available every day, while other receivers have been dealing with nagging injuries.
In the most recent practice Aug. 4, Proche made a nifty shoetop grab of a low throw during a 1-on-1 drill and later got open against Shaun Wade for a touchdown catch in a 7-on-7 drill.
Bateman, Wallace, Brown, Watkins and Duvernay figure to be locks to make the team. If the Ravens keep just six receivers, that leaves Proche in a battle with Boykin and others for a roster spot; Jaylon Moore and Deon Cain both have impressed at times. But during the first week of camp, Proche has done everything he can to ascend to the top of that bubble group.
“He does everything right,” head coach John Harbaugh said last week. “He’s a serious competitor. … He works all the time. He works within the play, too. He finishes every play.”
4. Justin Madubuike is a star in the making.
If James Proche has been the offensive standout thus far, then defensive lineman Justin Madubuike should get that award on defense.
Like Proche, Madubuike, a third-round pick out of Texas A&M in 2020, is benefiting from his first true offseason, with on-field OTA workouts in the spring and a full training camp with preseason games.
With the lack of contact early in training camp, it’s sometimes hard to gauge physicality up front, but even before the pads came on, Madubuike was spending a lot of time in the offensive backfield. At least a couple of times each practice, he has put an offensive lineman on the ground and blown up a running play, or disrupted a pass play with interior pressure.
Center Bradley Bozeman says the 6-foot-3, 300-pound Madubuike is “one of the harder people I’ve ever had to move on defense.”
The Ravens have a veteran defensive line led by Brandon Williams, Calais Campbell and Derek Wolfe, but they are all on the high side of 30 years old, so younger players are going to be asked to step up. Madubuike has been doing that in a big way thus far.
5. Odafe Oweh will help this pass rush. Justin Houston will, too.
In April, the Ravens’ edge rush was the team’s biggest question mark, given the departure of Matthew Judon, Yannick Ngakoue and Jihad Ward. But some of those questions should fade with the emergence of first-round rookie Odafe Oweh and the signing of four-time Pro Bowl edge rusher Justin Houston.
Oweh’s speed is as advertised, and the 6-foot-5, 251-pound Penn State product has been a handful for various offensive tackles trying to keep him out of the pocket. Granted, he has yet to face a tackle of the caliber of All-Pro Ronnie Stanley, and preseason games against other team’s starters will be revealing, but there has been a lot to like thus far.
The Ravens also love Oweh’s ability to set the edge and defend the run.
“Speed kills, and with his size, it’s unbelievable,” defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale said after one practice last week. “I don’t know if you saw the play today, because it was away from where you all were standing. They ran a speed-option, he took the quarterback and the pitch. So that’s a rare trait to have as an edge rusher, and we’re really excited with where he’s at.”
Houston, meanwhile, signed a one-year deal and has yet to practice as he goes through the NFL’s COVID-intake process. The 31-year-old, who spent the past two seasons in Indianapolis after eight in Kansas City, is expected to be on the field this weekend. He had 19 sacks in the past two seasons with the Colts, including eight in 2020.
Asked about how Houston might fit into the scheme, Martindale said, “What is it, 97 and a half [career] sacks? I think we can fit those in.”
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