From the moment he arrived at McDaniel College in Westminster in late July for training camp, Ravens linebacker Jarret Johnson has had to answer countless questions about being the only new addition to a defense ranked first in the NFL last season.
Tonight in the season opener on the road against the Cincinnati Bengals, Johnson will see if he can erase any remaining doubt about replacing Adalius Thomas, a two-time Pro Bowl player who left as a free agent for the New England Patriots.
For Johnson, it is just part of the process that began when he was drafted by the Ravens in the fourth round out of Alabama four years ago, eventually played defensive end and linebacker and now is expected to step in where Thomas left off as one of the unit's most versatile players.
"My goal since I moved in with the linebackers a couple of years ago was to gradually get better and better. My goal coming into camp was to keep improving little by little, and I feel like I'm a totally different player today than I was a month ago," Johnson, 27, said last week.
Johnson said his biggest improvement is in understanding "every aspect of the offense we're playing against," particularly in man-to-man coverage and the routes being run by opposing receivers.
"As a D-lineman, you really don't care how No. 1 [receiver] or No. 2 work off each other," Johnson said. "You don't really worry about that. When you start learning that stuff, it's a different world. I've kind of picked it up really quick."
Said veteran linebacker Bart Scott: "He's got a lot better in his man-to-man coverage and his awareness of being in the box and being open in space. He's always been a hard worker and if he gets something wrong, he'll go back and get it fixed."
Lloyd's learning curve
His status won't be announced until kickoff tonight, but it wouldn't come as a surprise to see Rhys Lloyd in uniform for the Ravens. The free-agent kicker, who didn't report until nearly the end of training camp from his native England because of visa problems, has made quite an impression.
Lloyd, who kicked his last two years at the University of Minnesota, was cut by the Ravens in 2005 during training camp. He spent time working out last year with the Green Bay Packers, then signed with Frankfurt in the now-defunct NFL Europa.
In his first practice with the Ravens in Westminster, Lloyd put three kickoffs into the end zone.
In the team's last preseason game, Lloyd made a 55-yard field-goal attempt against the Atlanta Falcons to finish 3-for-3 in the preseason.
"I don't think I made the team on one kick, but it certainly didn't hurt," Lloyd, 25, said last week.
Special teams coach Frank Gansz Jr. said he first saw Lloyd at this year's NFL Europa training camp in Tampa, Fla., in March.
"I thought he was the best guy down there," Gansz said Friday. "He's already had a season under his belt before he got here; he's way ahead. He's coming right out of a season and probably the rest was good for him. He definitely was someone who caught our eye."
Lloyd is much different from veteran Matt Stover in temperament and technique.
"Matt's been in this league a lot longer and he's a lot older; he has to be more diligent with his overall preparation," Gansz said. "Rhys is bigger, stronger, younger leg. He still does a good job preparing, too, but they just do it differently."
For many of the first-time Ravens who aren't starters or solid backups, doing well on special teams could be the difference between suiting up or sitting out against the Bengals.
It also depends on the position they play.
Le'Ron McClain, a fourth-round draft choice out of Alabama, had a strong preseason at fullback behind new starter Justin Green, and linebacker Edgar Jones, out of Southeast Missouri, was the only rookie free agent to make the 53-man roster.
But McClain likely will play against the Bengals, and Jones won't.
The reason: McClain has earned a spot on special teams and is considered by some to be an even better blocker in the backfield than Green; Jones, despite the positive strides he made at linebacker in training camp and during the preseason, is still learning the ropes on special teams.
"It's been hard in his situation; he's going to have to beat out Gary Stills and a couple of other guys," Gansz said of Jones. "It's new to him. He didn't play a lot of special teams in college. But he's going to be a good developing player."
As for McClain, Gansz said: "He's mature. He has athleticism. He's a very smart player. He understands what's going on. He's got a ways to go, but I'm pleased with where he's at."