Ravens hoping to get on a roll

The start of the NFL season is on the horizon and every franchise has the same goal in mind: the Superbowl. All teams share these lofty sentiments whether realistic or not, but the common link that helps fortify champions starts in late July at training camp.

Rosters turn over year after year (Ravens fans know this all too well when they saw a legend retire in the offseason) and camp is where teams begin to gel and form their foundations for the upcoming year. The Ravens have begun a new era which means prior expectations have been left behind and competition for roster spots and to be called starters is the name of the game. As players battled it out on the practice field, here are the three main points I took away from the morning practices on 8/1 and 8/2:

1. Troy Smith arrives late, but makes immediate impact.

While quarterbacks Kyle Boller and Joe Flacco struggled for the first 2/3 of practice on Friday, Smith, who was subject to a regularly required NFL drug test, made his mark from the first snap. "It was really good to see [the progression of the offense through practice]," said head coach John Harbaugh. "Troy was the quarterback there, right? I know you guys are marking that. That was really well orchestrated, and I thought it was handled well."

Well, coach Harbaugh, I think everyone took notice because fans want to know who is going to be the team's starting signal-caller to lead them into battle for the season.

As soon as Smith stepped onto the field, he was thrown into the fire right away. In his first three passes, he hit tight end Todd Heap twice for solid gains and connected with wide out Derrick Mason 15 yards down the field in traffic. A short while later, during team scrimmaging, Smith led what was left of the first team offense (more on injuries in a moment) down the field roughly 60 yards for a score. The drive was highlighted by a perfectly placed touch pass over the outstretched arms of one of the safeties and right into Heap's hands down the right sideline for a big gain.

Two plays later, staring down the cornerback blitz, Smith hit Mason on a skinny post for 15 yards, putting the offense in the vaunted red zone where drives frequently die and Ravens fans hear Matt Stover's name called as he comes in for a field goal.

However, after Smith marched the ball down field by passing, rookie running back Ray Rice capped off the drive with two runs to the left. Friday may be the impetus that results in the former Heisman Trophy winner's grasp of the elusive starting quarterback title. On Saturday, Smith continued to build upon his strong performance from the day before, demonstrating the most poise and accuracy of any of the three QBs.

Coach Harbaugh even gave the players Saturday afternoon and Sunday morning off. "It's because guys have done a great job of working hard [that they get time off]," said Harbaugh. "You try to get a certain amount of work in. We have not built in any predetermined days off for a reason, because we want guys to understand that they don't have a day off. There is no day off that is given to them. They earn it. And they have earned it."

Mending the vast number of injuries and the intensity of the quarterback competition probably had something to do with the players getting some R&R time.

2. Injuries are piling up.

By now, Ravens fans are quite familiar with the team's injury problems and I won't name those players again because I know you know who they are. With several players subject to drug tests early on during Friday's practice, seven projected defensive starters and five possible offensive starters (including Smith) were absent and receiver Mark Clayton left midway through with a shoulder injury.

Being in the audience, it was obvious that all of the absences are taking their toll as fans search their roster guides to find out who the new camp bodies are. Moreover, before Smith made his fashionably late arrival (which was completely out of his control and I'm sure something he would rather not have been doing), the offense not only looked like there was no improvement from last year, but it even looked worse and resembled a college team with all of the dropped passes, interceptions and fumbled snaps.

On the positive side, none of the injuries appear to be very serious and things really did pick up when Smith came in. Even better, on Saturday, some players came back from injuries and several others seemed to be rehabbing hard on the sidelines (especially safety Ed Reed, tight end Dan Wilcox and wide receiver Demetrius Williams).

I would fill you in with some quotes here, but with a new sheriff in town, the Ravens have gone covert with their injury updates.

3. Cameron's contribution is evident.

Despite both starting offensive tackles being injured as well as one backup, the offense still flashed some semblance of a capable attack with Smith at the helm. New offensive coordinator Cam Cameron's innovative play calling and player packages helped make the offense more dynamic, a word that certainly could not be attached to the previous regime.

"Right now it is truly one day at a time and one practice at a time, just trying to get better," said Cameron earlier this week about the offense. "I can't imagine a better environment to develop quarterbacks because the practices are so game-like. We don't need to come to any conclusions right now; we're just trying to get better. They're grasping what we're doing. However, we're going against a freestyle defense and that's just making them better and better."

Even though the team missed several key players, Cameron masked their absences by showing multiple fronts and successfully running the no huddle offense with Smith as the QB. On one of the very first plays in 11-on-11's, the mastermind Cameron put in three offensive tackles and, before the snap, they shifted which thoroughly confused the first team defense.

During the drive of the day on Friday, Cameron pulled out all of the stops by featuring the no huddle offense, employing hard counts, and lots of pre-snap movement. It was more of the same on Saturday and you could hear the defense calling out audibles and struggling to identify assignments.

"First, training camp has been outstanding so far," said Cameron.

"The effort of our guys is as good as I've ever been around. It's probably as tough as any training camp that I've been through. But I'm pleased that [some veterans]… have stepped up. We're getting tremendous leadership out of some guys on offense, and that's what we need at this time of year. But we're just getting started."


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