This year, Ravens happy campers

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The Ravens officially made the transition from training camp this weekend, returning to their Owings Mills complex with moving vans, boxes of equipment and a focus unlike any other year.

Wrapping up the most uneventful camp in the Brian Billick era, the Ravens successfully avoided all of their past pitfalls of distraction.

There were no catastrophic injuries, no extended holdouts and no embarrassing court dates. There wasn't even a debate about their quarterback, unless it's arguing whether Steve McNair will throw more passes to receiver Derrick Mason or tight end Todd Heap.

"The focus has been as good as I can remember," said Heap, who is entering his sixth season with the Ravens. "We haven't had a lot of crazy things happen off the field. All we've been doing is thinking about football. It's good to get back to that, and put all of our attention on the field."

Usually a lightning rod for headaches, the Ravens have been the exception in the AFC North this year.

The Pittsburgh Steelers have dealt with daily questions about the health status of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and the job status of coach Bill Cowher.

The Cleveland Browns are working on their fourth center after losing LeCharles Bentley (season-ending knee injury), Bob Hallen (retired unexpectedly) and Alonzo Ephraim (suspended four games for violating the NFL's substance abuse policy).

Five Cincinnati Bengals players have been arrested this offseason, and the team is holding its breath on the return of injured quarterback Carson Palmer.

"There's a subtle drag when those things come up that you have to overcome," Billick said. "You get more done when you don't have to deal with that. It allows you to bring focus to the things that are important: the season opener and the task at hand. Anything that detracts from that is not a good thing."

After two preseason games and 27 practices in camp, these are the questions that remain unresolved:

Who is the starting strong safety?

Gerome Sapp began training camp with the starters, but Dawan Landry quickly replaced him to start both preseason games.

Landry, a fifth-round pick, seems to have the edge because the Ravens like his physical presence, especially when dropping close to the line of scrimmage. It's unknown whether Sapp, a high-motor player, will get another chance with the starting defense.

"I don't think it's fair to shut the door on anybody," defensive coordinator Rex Ryan said. "These last couple of weeks, I've seen improvement in Gerome Sapp. And I'm excited about Landry. He's been thrown to the wolves right now, but he doesn't look out of place to me."

Who is going to be the punter?

The Ravens really want Sam Koch to seize the job, but the rookie sixth-round pick (36.9-yard average) is struggling as much as veteran Leo Araguz (37.5). This has clearly become the team's weakest area this preseason.

"I think we're getting a pretty good exposure to make our decision," Billick said.

Araguz missed yesterday's practice for undisclosed reasons, starting rumors that the Ravens might bring in another veteran punter.

"To my knowledge, he'll be fine on Monday," Billick said.

Who is the No. 3 wide receiver?

The Ravens traditionally haven't used three receivers on offense because they always had trouble finding two legitimate wide-outs. During this camp, Devard Darling (team-leading 121 yards receiving) and Demetrius Williams (three catches in the preseason opener) have shown flashes that they could figure into the offense's plans as the third receiver.

"The reason I'm out here practicing hard and having games like [Thursday's game against the Eagles] is to continue to build confidence with the coaching staff," Darling said.

Clarence Moore is behind Darling and Williams because he missed most of camp while recovering from hernia surgery.

Here is what the Ravens accomplished in camp:

McNair found a comfort zone in the offense.

The Ravens' new quarterback has picked up the system quickly despite only having a few months to absorb it. McNair has completed 18 of 23 passes this preseason (78.3 percent) and has rarely showed any hesitation.

"What has happened on a field that he hasn't seen before?" Billick said "The fact that he has been through three different coordinators and last year had to switch to a new system, he's kind of in that rhythm."

The only part of his game that hasn't shown up yet is his ability to throw over top of the defense.

Corey Ivy assumed the nickel back role over a couple of rookies.

Ivy, a free-agent pickup from the St. Louis Rams, was brought in to bolster special teams, but he eventually beat out rookies David Pittman and Ronnie Prude for the fifth defensive back spot. He has the physical presence and experience needed for one of the most important specialist roles in pass defense.

"We feel good about our nickel situation," Ryan said. "These days, a nickel back is like a starter because you play almost half of your snaps in that package."

Running back Musa Smith showed he can be an impact player when healthy.

After a broken leg sidelined him for two seasons, the former third-round pick is finally living up to expectations, showing power and explosion every time he touches the ball. Smith has already solidified himself as the team's third-down back, but his NFL-leading 116 yards rushing this preseason could lead to more playing time in the regular season.

"We're going to run the ball 500 times this year," Billick said. "Who carries that 500? I don't much care. Too many athletes is never, ever, ever a problem. We're thrilled that Musa is having the camp that he is." jamison.hensley@baltsun.com

Jockeying for position

A look at the Ravens' three key position battles:

Punter -- The Ravens want rookie Sam Koch (pictured) to step up and take the job. But Koch (36.9-yard average) and veteran Leo Araguz (37.5) have struggled in the preseason.

Safety -- Rookie Dawan Landry has worked exclusively with the starters this preseason, but the Ravens say the competition isn't over. Gerome Sapp might get another shot with the first-string defense.

Third receiver -- Devard Darling appears to have the edge here, leading the Ravens in receiving yards this preseason (121). Rookie Demetrius Williams has shown a strong upside and Clarence Moore is still recovering from offseason hernia surgery.

[Jamison Hensley]

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