A buzz was in the air as the Baltimore Ravens and San Francisco 49ers warmed up to prepare for their cross-continent practice partners.
This would be no ordinary day of training camp.
The same drills, the same 7-on-7 routines, the same 1-on-1’s that by this time during the summer have become as mundane and boring as ESPN’s and NFL Network’s excessively redundant coverage of Johnny Manziel, just weren’t the same – in a good way.
These athletes with a heightened sense of focus ushered in by the flow of competitive juices running through their veins, were about to dial it up a few notches.
As they walked onto the field, some with friendly foes of different colors, smiles shined through helmets like the sky on the sun-soaked fields. Terrell Suggs skipped out of the locker room next to Haloti Ngata singing an Alicia Keys song.
“Everything’s gonna be alright.”
For Suggs on Saturday afternoon it wasn’t all right as he was often stopped cold in his tracks by 49ers left tackle Joe Staley. His jagged a cappella version of No One was the last chirping we would hear from the boisterous former Defensive Player of the Year who once had a 3-sack game against the Niners on Thanksgiving 2011.
The practice results brought to the surface lingering concerns – can the Ravens generate a pass rush without the benefit of the blitz? Will Suggs and bookend OLB Elvis Dumervil be more like the players from the first half of the 2013 season or the second?
Many think back to the days of “Organized Chaos” when Rex Ryan unleashed his defense on opposing quarterbacks. And while chaos was the focus the operative word in the description is “organized”. Players require familiarity with each other in order for the “chaos” to work and you need a field general who can command the defense and who is intimately familiar with its concepts. He needs to be the yin to the yang of the defensive coordinator.
That’s not the case in Baltimore – at least not yet.
Without the benefit of an effective pass rush it leaves a rather ordinary secondary vulnerable.
Jimmy Smith has arguably been the best defender on the field this summer and it would be of no surprise if the Ravens opt to use Smith to mark an opponent’s best receiver, particularly the long pass catchers who can get vertical and make the tough contested catches. (See the AJ Greens and Julio Joneses on the 2014 schedule.)
But outside of Smith, questions abound.
Lardarius Webb has been missing and while the club seems to be downplaying the injury and the consequential rest as precautionary, Webb’s history of injuries raises concern.
Chykie Brown has been consistently awful. Asa Jackson can make plays but is he a pure corner? Does his size whet the appetite of opposing QB’s? He may be the team’s answer as the nickel corner (he gets my vote) but can he compete effectively on an island?
Veteran Dominique Franks is competing but he’s been inconsistent. Undrafted Free Agent corners Deji Olatoye, Sammy Seamster and Tramain Jacobs have had their moments but in a passing league will Dean Pees be even remotely comfortable with rookies who weren’t even worthy of being drafted?
And then there’s the safety position, one that hardly gives fans that warm, fuzzy, SAFE feeling.
Darian Stewart has had a pretty decent camp so far and defensive backs coach Steve Spagnuolo is certainly familiar with the former Ram’s ability. But one ability that has avoided Stewart is availability. He has a history of nagging injuries and has yet to dress for a full 16-game season during his 4-year career.
Rookie third-round pick Terrence Brooks seems lost and rather stealth during practices – so much so that one almost needs to be reminded of his number (33). Jeromy Miles has been decent but his legacy in the NFL includes predominately special teams accomplishments. Sounds a bit like James Ihedigbo.
Former UDFA’s Omar Brown, Brynden Trawick and Anthony Levine seem like nothing more than special teamers at best and camp fodder at worst.
And that brings us to 2013’s first round pick Matt Elam.
Elam has been lauded by his teammates and by the coaching staff. But judging from his production in camp you can’t help to be left wondering if the accolades are part of a collective effort to prop up the former Florida Gator and get his mojo moving in the right direction.
Elam is supposed to be that guy up in the box, making plays around the line of scrimmage and then occasionally in the backfield. Think Bob Sanders (hopefully).
To be fair, those plays aren’t readily on display during camp because of the lack of contact. Yet that said, the lack of playmaking is concerning. Elam is nearby but a step or two late. It was evident yesterday as he trailed behind TE Vernon Davis during a couple of crossing routes by the Pro Bowl former Maryland Terrapin who picked up chunks of yardage on those plays, much like he did in Super Bowl XLVII.
There’s a reason the Ravens are taking a flyer on troubled safety Will Hill.