It isn’t often that anyone is allowed a head start in professional sports, but the Ravens seem to have taken full advantage of the opportunity to open training camp a week early and play in last Thursday’s Pro Football Hall of Fame game.
In fact, the combination of that early start and the two days they have spent this week practicing against the Los Angeles Rams at the Under Armour Performance Center has some of the coaches feeling as if they stole Christmas.
“The beauty of this particular preseason is we had the extra preseason game and we’ve had these practices, so we’ve already had more reps than we typically have going into the first preseason game,” said special teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg. “Our younger players have had more competitive situations, more full-speed situations than normal.”
The extra four quarters of actual competition probably won’t significantly change the progression that will occur during the normally scheduled four preseason games, but it did give the younger players on the roster a chance get acclimated to an NFL game environment, which should help them settle in Thursday night when the Ravens host the Rams in their first of two preseason games at M&T Bank Stadium.
“What we do hope, and what we’ve been telling our players, is there’s an adage that you improve the most between your first and second game,” Rosburg said. “I think that’s true for young players in the preseason games because they finally get a taste of what it’s like, so we’re looking for a lot of improvement from our young players between Game Zero and Game One.”
The practices with the Rams increased in intensity from Monday to Tuesday, and everyone seems to agree that practicing against a different team is helpful because it exposes the offense, defense and special teams to less predictable situations.
“I think it’s very beneficial because it gets us going against their timing, their passing game, their tempo of their up-tempo stuff,” defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale said. “They have different variances up-tempo just like our up-tempo stuff does. Theirs is different than our offense, if that makes sense, so it’s been great experience for our guys, especially our younger guys.”
It hasn’t always been so. The Ravens participated in combined practices ahead of a 2015 preseason matchup against the Eagles in Philadelphia, but weren’t happy with the logistics of what was supposed to be a mutually beneficial practice schedule and definitely weren’t happy with the 40-17 drubbing they took in the game.
The Ravens are the home team, in this case, and while Tuesday’s session got a little “chippy” in the heat and humidity, they seemed to enjoy the opportunity to practice in a more intense, competitive situation.
“This is my third time doing this,” Pro Bowl linebacker C.J. Mosley said. “My rookie year, the 49ers came here and the year after we went to Philly, so I kind of know how it goes. I think we kind of — on both sides of the ball — we haven’t been showing everything we’re going to be doing, so it’s going to be fun when we actually get there and lock pads and actually be a unit and try to win and play as Ravens.”
Not that Mosley will be spending a lot of time on the field. Coach John Harbaugh has indicated that he will treat Thursday night’s game like a normal first preseason game, which means that many of the veterans will be out there for a quarter or so and some will not play at all.
Still, Mosley said the game still can provide an opportunity for the defense to test itself under adverse conditions.
“From the defensive standpoint, just mental toughness for the whole four quarters,” he said. “We want to start fast, don’t want to start slow, and towards the end of the game play situational defense … having that mental toughness to push through when you’re tired. That’s what we’ve been talking about the last few days in practice. It’s been a little more humid than normal the last few days, so you have guys mentally push through that.”
For the second Thursday in a row, there will be a lot of eyes on rookie quarterback Lamar Jackson, who produced some big plays during his preseason debut and also showed that he has some work to do to show the team he’s ready to back up Joe Flacco.
“He did get great experience — the end-of-the-game situations, the four-minute [drill] and even the victory,” said offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg. “I’m joking just a little bit, but there is sort of an artwork to that thing. He got some great experience — got himself a touchdown — so it was a good start. Now the next step, and there’s a lot of steps involved.”