Originally posted on Football Nation  |  Last updated 8/6/12
As we fly across the late afternoon city, August red swelter, a serene blanketing calm and wave of deep focus takes over the car and its passengers, as our silver speeding Jeep hugs the curves of winding Lombard street, expediting our arrival to today’s hallowed destination, M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore.

This deep focus arriving since each year on eight either fall Sunday mornings or primetime afternoons, this very car trek concludes itself with the Ravens hosting a regular season NFL football game, an event like no other that this great nation has to offer. 

Today’s itinerary of the Ravens annual free admission, full team practice session, of course cannot offer the awakening electricity of an actual game, but does provide a prime scouting opportunity for fans to preview this year’s installment of Baltimore’s push for that increasingly elusive professional football championship.

The Ravens have made the playoffs in each of the past four years, only to ultimately fall short of appearing in the big game. 

We’ve seen QB Joe Flacco’s impressive maturation, from a deer in the headlights rookie beanpole, into a laid back respected team leader, now perfectly comfortable discussing family values and his potential status as the league’s strongest arm with ESPN’s Ron Jaworski.

We’ve watched never say die pit bull mini RB Ray Rice become one of the NFL’s most dangerous playmakers.  We’ve witnessed LB Ray Lewis’s continued defiance of known possibility, as his consecutive years of playing collision ridden middle linebacker at the highest level now reaches 17. 

We’ve had front row seats (not literally, too expensive), for Lardarius Webb’s development into a legit, maybe let’s not test this guy, NFL blanket corner.

And we’ve seen Ed Reed be, well…  Ed Reed, which by the way is probably better than anyone else to ever play the safety position. 

We welcomed the Saints marching to town and sent them packing on a Rice wheel route in 2010.  We scored three defensive touchdowns against the Jets last year on Sunday night, and beat down the Steelers 35-7 in week 1 of the same year, a glorious retribution for the January 2011 playoff defeat and the shredding of our hearts via Troy Polamalu on his Flacco strip in 2010’s primetime regular season matchup. 

We drunkenly slept through the Lions in the rain in 2009 and shoveled two feet of snow the next week to tailgate for the Bears, following a Saturday night snowstorm. 

And finally in January 2012, after sweeping the NFL’s toughest division, the AFC North, we did enough to earn a home playoff game against the Texans, from which we emerged victorious, but then proceeded to lose the AFC championship, missing the Super Bowl by only inches… again.  

We’ve closely followed position battles throughout all months of the year, and debated late round draft selections and free agent acquisitions with far more vigor than sports should probably merit. 

We’ve been saddened by news of the financial plights of former Raven greats, Chris McAlister, Jermaine Lewis, and Jamal Lewis.  We remain hopeful that the shocking 78 percent, within 2 years, ex-player bankruptcy rate can be effectively cut into, as we’ve somewhat irresponsibly used our own paychecks to attend every home game with stomachs full of delicious grilled concoctions and enough beer to make the Mondays, particularly after losses, become their dreaded cases of. 

Yet despite our dedicated, diehard purple passionate fandom, along with the strong willed discipline and meticulous attention to detail of Coach Harbaugh, his staff, and each year’s squad of 53 mighty men, the sought after championship trophy remains the city’s white whale.  

Ray Lewis now stands far and away the only remaining member of the team’s only Super Bowl winner, his hoisting of the great trophy an ever fading glint in his battle tested eyes, as the years tick away, running from 2000 as only time can do, with the ultimate goal of each seasonal campaign unmet.  

This year will have to be different.  

Joe Flacco now enters his fifth season as the team’s starting quarterback.  He’s compiled a regular season record of 44-20, more wins than any other quarterback in their first 4 years in league history, and looks to cleanse himself of the pain of ending the season by watching another team celebrate. 

Ray Rice is primed and ready to continue his assault on all purpose yards after signing a big contract in the offseason.

The defense, anchored by Lewis, Reed, Webb  and mammoth DT Haloti Ngata battles to remain one of the NFL’s most feared units.  The loss of 2011 defensive player of the year Terrell Suggs to an Achilles tear will hurt, though he claims a midseason return.

Questions remain on the offensive line, as C Matt Birk fights father time, and since the Saints signed last year’s top performer G Ben Grubbs, but the front office has replenished the team with enough depth and talent to hopefully turn these unavoidable challenges into successfully climbed mountains by season’s end. 

We peel the Jeep into the stadium’s O parking lot, off the southwest corner of the towering coliseum’s looming presence and, after burning rubber on a full lot lap at top speed, for what I can only determine was no reason at all, we walk a short few hundred yards and enter the modern Sunday temple, the clean slate of hope and anticipation of a brand new season on our faces like New Year’s Eve.   

The following are observations from the team’s practice session on Saturday August 4thand some prospective positional outlooks for the Ravens upcoming 2012 season.

Torrey pines stardom

After a breakout, 7 touchdown rookie season in 2011, WR Torrey Smith appears prepared to continue his meteoric rise to NFL prominence. 

He appeared confident and precise in route running throughout practice and showed improved hands by consistently going up to snatch passes at the ball’s highest point.  His quick stop route, which he scored on in the AFC championship, should be effective this season because defensive backs have to respect his blinding speed and won’t want to overcommit by playing him too closely, and if he gets the ball with even an inch of space he can get to the house from any part of the field. 

His emergence has also allowed hard nosed veteran Anquan Boldin to return to the slot position where he is both most effective and comfortable.  The Ravens have done a nice job of addressing this position, which was definitely a weak area a few short years ago when the team prayed for long shot pan outs like Demetrius Williams and leaned too heavily on Derrick Mason even as he was being wheeled into Shady Acres. 

Former Texan Jacoby Jones adds speed, depth and special teams help to the wideout corps, undrafted rookie Deonte Thompson looks like he has NFL caliber hands, and lanky 6thround draft pick Tommy Streeter made some nice, athletic catches during the session.  Second year man and former Terp Laquan Williams meanwhile, continues to impress by making nearly every play, likely securing him another year in the pros.

K-Ruger!

OLB/DE Paul Kruger may have been the most effective player on the defense last year based on number of snaps played. This year with Suggs’ injury, coupled with the departures of Jarret Johnson and Cory Redding, Kruger should get the chance to play every down, and he looks ready. 

His speed allows him to drop effectively into coverage and his relentless pass rush motor looks tops on the team.  10-12 sacks and possible pro bowl consideration could definitely be in the cards for the 4thyear player.

Kick-off countdown

The kicking battle between veteran Billy Cundiff and rookie Justin Tucker appears neck and neck, as the only miss I noted from either on Saturday was a Cundiff bomb from 65 yards that came up just short.  Tucker converted from 62 with room to spare. 

Cundiff is proven and reliable but did grow shaky towards the end of last season and of course came up with the devastating miss against the Patriots, the debate over which remains whether he was hurriedly rushed out because of down confusion or simply shanked the kick in the heat of the pressure situation.  Tucker has a big leg and could end up winning the job if the team decides they’d rather not see him hitting clutch kicks in another uniform after they had him in camp to begin with. 

This will be a close call.

Rice needs a backup?

Of course Ray Rice would tell you that he can handle 35-40 carries per game (just pound the rock!!), but the reality of today’s NFL is that teams need 2 running backs, which works best when the backup can also provide a change of pace. With the retirement of Ricky Williams in the offseason, the Ravens drafted Bernard Pierce from Temple in the 3rdround this year, who hopes to compete for the job, but sat out on Saturday with a pulled hamstring. 

Damien Berry made the most plays during the showcase, but his style resembles Rice, and 2nd year back Anthony Allen looked good last preseason.  The team may consider a late free agent acquisition if Pierce remains unhealthy.

Pitta please

TE Dennis Pitta became one of Flacco’s favorite targets last season, converting 17 third downs, but he’s gone down with a broken hand and will miss the entire preseason.  He is expected to return for the season opener, but there has to be concern over a hand injury to a player so reliant on them for occupational success. 

TE Davon Drew is a house, but is really more of a blocker, and Ed Dickson still must develop more consistency to prove himself a starting caliber tight end.  Flacco likes to use his tight ends on short yard, rub routes to the sideline in order to convert first downs and it will be important for Pitta to return healthy enough to contribute even more big receptions than last year.

Webb of terror

The best athlete on the Ravens defense now may be 4thyear cornerback Lardarius Webb, and the team informed him that they feel similarly by signing him to a 6 year $50 million extension in the offseason.  Other shutdown corners in the NFL play on the outside with the benefit of sideline assistance while Webb often lines up over the slot receiver poised to cover any area of the field. 

This means that opposing quarterbacks can’t simply avoid an entire side and must put the ball in Webb’s area to test the middle of the field.  Webb’s presence and sure tackling mixed with roaming Ed Reed, hard hitting veteran Bernard Pollard, and tall cornerbacks Jimmy Smith and Cary Williams could give the Ravens the top secondary in the NFL.

Etc…

NT Terrence Cody looks slimmed down and ready to unleash pain.  2ndround draft pick Kelechi Osemele appears comfortable at right tackle, as Michael Oher remains on the left side, with Bryant McKinnie running with the twos.  Free agent G Bobbie Williams appears to be the short term answer to replace Grubbs.  R

ookie NT Ishmaa’ily Kitchen from Kent State impressed with his attacking bull rush and it’s positive to see LB Sergio Kindle, a physical monster, healthy and participating.  I would have liked to see top draft pick OLB Courtney Upshaw in the mix, but the team has been cautious and held him out with a sprained shoulder, probably the right move. 

The practice had its sloppy moments, several dropped passes, some bad snaps and other miscues, but nothing alarming considering the time of year.  Crucial weeks of preparation remain before the Ravens take the field for keeps against the Cincinnati Bengals on Monday September 10that 7 p.m. in Baltimore, and the 2012 journey begins.

As Hank Williams once inquired, is your level of readiness appropriate for the commencement of some football!!??

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