COMMENTARY | Training camp is where champions are made, so when the Baltimore Ravens take the field for the first time during training camp, all eyes will be on the defending champions. Are they as strong as last year? Can Joe Flacco carry over his momentum from last season? These questions and more will be on everyone's minds.
To get insight into these bigger questions, here are three things to keep an eye on during training camp.
The Development of the Passing Game
Joe Flacco answered a lot of questions when he went off in the playoffs, but he raised a new one. Is his postseason success proof that he has turned the corner as a quarterback? This training camp will be our first opportunity to see Flacco try to answer that question.
The passing game as a whole will be under a lot of scrutiny. The much publicized competition at receiver will continue to be a hot-button issue, as the Ravens desperately need someone to step up and become a weapon opposite Torrey Smith. No matter how good Flacco is, he can't operate an offense with just one solid wide receiver.
To that end, the Ravens will be looking for big contributions from Tandon Doss, Deonte Thompson and Jacoby Jones. All should see the field, but the Ravens need at least one to assert himself as a legitimate starter in the NFL to keep pressure off of Flacco and Smith. Camp will be where one or more of these guys can start to carve a role for themselves in the offense.
The tight end position is another one to watch. Dennis Pitta and Ed Dickson should both see an increased role in the passing game, and both should bring their A-game in contract years. Pitta will be looking to play a more versatile role, as a lot of Pitta's catches came as an outlet receiver where he was the second or third option. Having proven himself, Pitta should be in line to see more targets and run a larger variety of routes. Watch Pitta to see if Flacco starts to rely on him even more.
Finally, despite the scrutiny this passing game is under, it has the potential to be a very dangerous aerial assault. The Ravens are blazing fast at receiver, with Smith, Jones and Thompson all possessing blazing speed and good size. If all three are on the field, opponents will struggle to match up with the Ravens' speed. Keep an eye on how willing the Ravens are to spread the field with their speedy guys.
It will all come down to Flacco, of course. He will need to produce regardless of his weapons, and he seems primed to do just that. His confidence has never been higher, and his connection with offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell should help him turn in his best season yet. He first needs to connect with his new targets in camp.
Team Chemistry on Defense
Nearly everyone who follows the Ravens would agree that they added a major influx of talent on defense, but they have yet to prove they can play well together. Defense relies on all eleven guys playing together effectively. The secondary especially needs to trust one another to be in position, or else the whole defense will fall apart.
The addition of two new safeties means that there will be a new guy making the calls in the secondary. Michael Huff or Matt Elam will have to acclimate quickly to the Ravens' defense to help keep the secondary in the best position possible to make plays. Otherwise, opponents will be able to take advantage of the disorganization and consistently make big plays through the air.
Likewise, a good pass rush relies on several players working together to create pressure. A lot of quarterbacks are adept enough in the pocket to avoid an individual rusher: It takes a front-seven working together to get sacks. Terrell Suggs should help get everyone on the same page, and the chemistry between him and Elvis Dumervil is already apparent. As long as this group gels quickly, the Ravens could have a fearsome pass rush.
There could be some growing pains on the defense to start the season: A team can't replace so many starters without taking some lumps. Watching how the new guys work together in training camp should give some insight into how they will play together during the season.
The Ravens have all the confidence in the world that they can avoid the Super Bowl hangover, but they will need to keep the intensity high during training camp for that to happen.
John Harbaugh runs a tight ship with tougher practices than a lot of NFL coaches. Don't expect that approach to change. How the veterans respond to it, though, could be telling.
A lot was made about how the Ravens let go of guys like Bernard Pollard and Ed Reed, guys who were occasionally vocal dissenters regarding the Ravens' approach. Those stories were probably blown out of proportion, but there is a kernel of truth there. This team was built to infuse hungry free agents and rookies with the Ravens' already strong core, and the result should be a team that buys in to the hard work needed to make another championship run.
Still, keep an eye on the Ravens' intensity during practices. Any let up at all could be indicative of some lumps coming during the season.
Shawn Brubaker is a graduate of the Catholic University of America. He has been a Baltimore Ravens featured columnist for Bleacher Report for two years and is currently a co-host of Ravens Central Radio.
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