With their fans gone and a road trip approaching, the Ravens called practice early on Tuesday morning. After nearly three weeks and 15 practices in a row at their Owings Mills headquarters, they were leaving home.
On Wednesday morning, the Ravens will face the Carolina Panthers in the first of a pair of joint practices ahead of Saturday’s preseason game in Charlotte. The morning sessions, held in Spartanburg, South Carolina, are the team’s first outside Maryland since 2019; the coronavirus pandemic scuttled all of the league’s preseason planning last year.
While the joint practices won’t resolve the Ravens’ most pressing issues — the health of their wide receiver room, the state of their pass rush, the ongoing left guard battle — they will be a useful measuring stick with the season less than a month away. Here’s what we’ll be watching.
How will Lamar Jackson look against another team?
Jackson sat out the preseason opener against the Saints, which came just a week after he returned to practice from his second bout with COVID-19. So the practices against Carolina will pit him against enemy competition for the first time since he exited the Ravens’ playoff loss to the Buffalo Bills because of a concussion.
Jackson has thrown fairly well in training camp, putting impressive zip on his intermediate throws, but he could be without many of his top targets against a so-so Panthers secondary. Wide receiver Sammy Watkins left practice early Monday — coach John Harbaugh said his departure was “nothing serious” — and did not return Tuesday. Marquise “Hollywood” Brown (hamstring) has moved well when working out on a side field, but his timetable for a return is unclear. First-round pick Rashod Bateman had groin surgery last week and won’t see the field until September, at the earliest.
So even if Jackson brings his top form to the joint practices, his opportunity to showcase a retooled passing attack will be limited.
All eyes will focus on No. 8 regardless, because his quest to take the next step in his NFL career is inextricably bound to the Ravens’ hopes for a Super Bowl run. We probably won’t learn a whole lot about where he stands based on a few practices in South Carolina, but the questions will be asked.
Will we see evidence of the refined footwork Jackson has practiced with Ravens quarterbacks coach James Urban and personal tutor Adam Dedeaux? Will he have time to push the ball downfield behind an offensive line that faltered against the Saints?
For his part, Jackson seems eager to be back with his teammates in competitive situations. “I’m trying to catch up with my guys,” he said last week. “Because they’re on the train — like Coach [offensive coordinator Greg Roman] said — I’m trying to catch the train. I’m ‘in the car’ right now [and] I’m trying to catch up to those guys.”
How much of the starting offensive line will we see?
Ravens linemen struggled to hold their ground in the team’s preseason opener against the New Orleans Saints, but this unit is getting healthier.
Starting right guard Kevin Zeitler returned to practice Monday, and left tackle Ronnie Stanley seems to do more every day as he comes back from ankle surgery. Rookie left guard Ben Cleveland could return as soon as Wednesday’s first practice against the Panthers after missing the last week with a concussion.
Harbaugh has expressed optimism that his starting offensive line could be on the field for the Ravens’ preseason finale against the Washington Football Team. But how intact will the unit be against a Panthers front led by defensive end Brian Burns, a former first-round pick who graded as one of the top edge rushers in the league last season? Offseason addition Haason Reddick gives Carolina another formidable pass rusher.
Burns and Reddick could test Stanley, who’s one of the top pass blockers in football when healthy, and Alejandro Villanueva, who’s still adjusting to right tackle after years on the left side. If Cleveland is back, we could also see movement in the competition at left guard, where no one has stepped forward to seize the starting job.
Beyond individual matchups, Roman is eager to get his starters on the field together so that they can build cohesion.
“We’re good now, but we need to start pushing for that continuity,” Roman said Tuesday. “Now’s about the time, when you really look at the calendar and where we’re at. The more time we can get those guys together, communicating together, getting a feel for each other, it’s tangible. It’s real.”
Which big-time matchups will materialize in one-on-ones?
Two weeks ago, this would’ve been the kind of entertainment you clear your schedule for. Instead, a string of injuries has taken some of the shine off the competition.
On offense, the Ravens won’t have Bateman. They probably won’t have Brown and Miles Boykin, who’s joined Brown in his on-field rehabilitation. And they might not have Watkins, either. On defense, the Ravens will likely be without cornerback Marlon Humphrey, who was hurt in a one-on-one drill early in Tuesday’s practice. Rookie defensive back Brandon Stephens also did not return after leaving Monday’s session early.
Still, there are potential must-see matchups. Carolina’s Christian McCaffrey is one of the NFL’s best dual-threat running backs and could stress Ravens inside linebacker Patrick Queen’s coverage skills in ways that J.K. Dobbins and Gus Edwards can’t. Panthers wide receivers DJ Moore (Maryland) and Robby Anderson, both coming off 1,000-yard seasons, will probe the Ravens’ top-end cornerbacks, especially Marcus Peters, who’s had a standout camp.
On the other side of the ball, the Ravens will line up against a somewhat green Panthers secondary. Safety Jeremy Chinn, who starred as a first-year linebacker in 2020, hasn’t faced a tight end in training camp — or in the team’s joint practices last week with the Indianapolis Colts — like Mark Andrews. Cornerback Jaycee Horn, meanwhile, a first-round pick who’s made plays and drawn flags this summer, could have his own physical playing style challenged if Watkins is cleared to practice.
Will tempers flare before the preseason game?
From big plays to busted coverages, from good quotes to bad falls, Ravens training camp has played out as expected. All that’s been missing, really, is a too-hot temper.
Other than a couple of after-the-play shoving matches early in camp between rookie tight end-fullback Ben Mason and Queen and Jaylon Ferguson, Ravens coaches haven’t had to worry about playing peacemaker. But with five more cuts to be made by Tuesday, and the NFL’s initial 53-man roster due in less than two weeks, that could change in South Carolina.
Three years ago, when the Ravens traveled to Westfield, Indiana, for two joint practices with the Indianapolis Colts, the teams got through their first session without any acrimony. But on their second and final day together, emotions boiled over.
During a special teams drill, Ravens linebacker Albert McClellan lined up opposite Colts linebacker Antonio Morrison. As the Ravens’ punt coverage team sprinted downfield, the two locked horns. McClellan, trying to disengage from Morrison, tossed him to the ground. Morrison got up and wrapped his arms around McClellan, who threw Morrison down again. McClellan, who lost his helmet somewhere along the way, started unloading on Morrison. Other players joined the fracas, some throwing punches themselves.
Harbaugh said afterward that it was “much ado about nothing,” and joked about an “obsession that we all have with fights in training camp practices.” When he brought up the topic Monday, he said McClellan’s fight was the only one he could recall from a joint practice.
“I’ve talked to [Panthers coach] Matt [Rhule] about what we’re going to do,” Harbaugh said. “We’ll talk when we get down there again. We need to be on the same page as a team. We’re coming down there to practice. We’re coming down there for football. That’s what we’re coming down there for. I know the Panthers will be in the same mindset. We expect them to be in the same mindset.”
Preseason, Week 2
Saturday, 7 p.m.
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