It’s easy to understand why the Rams are media darlings. They represent the nation’s second largest TV market. They are led by the youngest head coach in NFL history. They were the league’s most prolific scorers in 2017 on their way to a first-place finish in the NFC West and they’ve added some big-name talent to 2017’s 12th best scoring defense in the forms of Ndamukong Suh, Aqib Talib and Marcus Peters.
On paper they look like legitimate Super Bowl contenders.
And on the field Tuesday, they did little to dispel that notion.
Much focus has been placed upon the Ravens offense during camp and the preseason. It’s hard to resist given all of the personnel additions to that side of the football. But when you look back upon the 2017 season, despite being such and eye-sore, the Ravens offense wasn’t the culprit – they weren’t the reason that the team was home for the playoffs. It was the defense that let the team down during the season’s biggest moments. Therefore, I decided to spend about 60% of my time studying Wink Martindale’s unit.
But before I get to the defense, I thought I’d share a few observations from offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg’s side of the ball.
Alex Collins is clearly the team’s No. 1 tailback and he did nothing to dispel that notion during Tuesday’s session. He ran purposefully and with his head seemingly on fire. He finishes each play and his cutback vision remains 20/20. Collins’ only blemish that I observed, took place during 11-on-11 scrimmaging when he was stripped by Talib and Blake Countess after he broke into the Rams’ secondary…Collins’ backfield mate Kenneth Dixon made an appearance albeit a brief one as he left the field heading towards his home away from home – the trainer’s table. Dixon has flashed an abundance of talent in the past, but he looks to be as fragile as former Raven, Michael Campanaro. Dixon doesn’t appear to be in great shape. He’s overly thick in the back end and his stride doesn’t seem to have the same giddy-up that it did as a rookie. The cost to retain him is inexpensive so the Ravens will keep him around – perhaps even park him on IR, AGAIN! But don’t be surprised if Ozzie Newsome is studying other NFL rosters for the next Alex Collins.
John Brown and Willie Snead alternated between the X and slot positions on the field. Snead is a solid route runner and shows excellent change-of-direction skills while Brown, an accomplished route runner himself, glides naturally and has an extra gear. From the slot, he may be able to exploit mismatches against nickel backs who might not be able to match Brown’s speed. During this session, Brown ran a few skinny posts from the slot inside the 25-yard line. Neither of these receivers were given many reps during the afternoon. Michael Crabtree was also limited.
The Ravens tight ends were the offensive stars for the day, particularly first-round pick Hayden Hurst. He’s legit, showing an ability to get downfield, create separation and make contested catches. Hurst had a terrific diving catch on the receiving end of a Joe Flacco pass for a 20+ yard gain. Fellow tight end Mark Andrews also showcased some downfield hops and an ability to make a catch in traffic. Comparatively speaking, Nick Boyle looks slow and methodical, but in his defense, Boyle’s game is built differently than that of the two rookies.
— Baltimore Ravens (@Ravens) August 7, 2018
Joe Flacco had an up and down day that got off on the wrong foot. During 7-on-7 scrimmaging in the red zone, Flacco’s first pass was thrown behind Snead and into the waiting arms of Talib. It was one of two interceptions that I observed. The other on a deep pass that was overthrown into double-coverage, intended for Andrews. Later Flacco was baited by Peters and intercepted once again in the end zone.
Lamar Jackson had a decent afternoon and during my time watching the offense, he was relatively mistake free. He hit Janarion Grant, a UDFA WR out of Rutgers with a nice toss in traffic for a 25-yard gain. He later scrambled right and threw a nice touch pass down the sideline, hitting Andre Levrone, a big-bodied UDFA WR from Virginia in stride. Levrone took it in for the score from about 55 yards out. Jackson later hit Andrews on a couple of significant gains, one going for a score on a seam route along the right hash…Robert Griffin, III’s snaps were limited during the afternoon, seemingly to get Jackson ramped up.
— PirateLife Football (@PirateLifeFF) August 8, 2018
ON TO THE DEFENSE…
It’s interesting to observe differences in the way teams approach practice and the subtle nuances that define teams. Immediately, I noticed how quickly the Rams exit a huddle and get into position to run a play. There were times when the Ravens defense didn’t even appear set before the Rams snapped the ball.
My focus during the afternoon was two-fold. I wanted to see what the Ravens were doing to improve upon two areas of weakness from 2017: 1) Rushing the quarterback without blitzing; and 2) The cover skills of the inside linebackers. Let’s start with the good news.
In 2017 Matt Judon’s improvement from his pretty solid rookie season was very noticeable. He’s become a well-rounded edge defender. Early indications are that he’s a bit more explosive as a pass rusher. He could be a player that takes that next step towards becoming Pro Bowl caliber…Tim Williams has been labeled as a one-dimensional, see-the-quarterback-and-go-get-him kind of player. And while that still may be largely true, he is showing signs of rounding out his game in coverage. But during this session, I wanted to see if he had taken steps to refine his arsenal of moves to get the quarterback. He has!
Williams first step is explosive but this year, instead of continuing upfield and essentially taking himself out of a play if there’s no interior push, Williams is refining a spin move that leaves a slower, more lumbering offensive tackle vulnerable to the inside. He disrupted Jared Goff a few times…Kamalei Correa picked up where he left off in Canton, Ohio, regularly disrupting the Rams second-team offense. He also contributed what would have easily been a strip sack of Goff during 11-on-11 scrimmaging. The play did not escape the notice of Judon who enthusiastically greeted his 2016 classmate as he headed to the sideline. Maybe Correa has finally found a home.
Another member of the 2016 draft class, Bronson Kaufusi, was also disruptive as an interior pass rusher. Kaufusi looks much more chiseled and agile than he has in his first two seasons. If he can contribute to the interior push along with Brent Urban, that alone would do wonders for the Ravens in their attempt to rush the passer with just four players.
Now for the bad news…
The Rams destroyed the Ravens defense on crossers and Goff’s favorite target during the repeated exploitations was Cooper Kupp. The Rams appeared to be pushing the Ravens secondary back with the likes of Brandin Cooks and Robert Woods only to force mismatches with Kupp and the Ravens linebackers who were in zone. That left the Ravens right side of the defense vulnerable to right to left crossers from Kupp who picked up large chunks of yardage seemingly at will. The players regularly trailing Kupp were Patrick Onwuasor, Albert McClellan and Chris Board. Onwuasor was also beaten badly for a TD during red zone drills by Rams 2018 6th-round pick, John Kelly, a RB from Tennessee.
Tyus Bowser missed practice and his lack of productivity so far is a bit disappointing…Terrell Suggs sat out the session as did WRs Tim White, Jaelon Acklin and Quincy Adeboyejo. Also, out were DB’s Tony Jefferson, Jaylen Hill and Bennett Jackson; Bam Bradley; OL Maurquice Shakir and Randin Crecelius…Maxx Williams left practice after tweaking his ankle; Grant had a punt return for a score but showboated into the end zone and was subsequently flagged and then rightfully chastised by Jerry Rosburg…The Ravens may have discovered something in WR Jordan Lasley. He possesses a big play ability and is a feisty competitor on special teams although on Tuesday, he may have been a bit too spirited when he was flagged for driving an opponent too zealously out of bounds during punt return drills. But you have to admire the combativeness.
Overall it was a good session for both teams, but I’d have to give the overall edge to the Rams. Theirs is the more talented roster and during the two combined sessions, it showed.
For now, they deserve to be the media darlings in the NFL.