Two weeks notice: The long offseason is almost over


After a long and eventful offseason, we’re exactly two weeks away from the start of the NFL season when the hated Pittsburgh Steelers host the Tennessee Titans for the Thursday night opener.
In Baltimore, an impressive 2-0 preseason start has only raised expectations for the Ravens entering the 2009 regular season.
With two preseason encounters remaining before the Ravens kick off against the Kansas City Chiefs on Sept. 13, much has gone well, but questions still remain before the real games begin.
Here are my purple thoughts as we approach the Ravens’ meeting with the Carolina Panthers on Saturday night.
– Receiver Mark Clayton returned to practice yesterday after missing most of training camp with a hamstring injury.  Though he won’t play against Carolina, it’s definitely a positive sign for him to be practicing more than two weeks before the regular season opener.
Considering his history with hamstring issues, the Ravens will be extremely careful with Clayton.  If his hamstring responds well to practice, he’ll likely play against Atlanta to get some game reps next Thursday night, but don’t be surprised to see the Ravens limit his reps into the early stages of the season.
It helps that Clayton had an entire offseason to work with Joe Flacco, but the two will need to regain their timing.  As WNST’s Glenn Clark has mentioned, Clayton’s absence has opened the door for Kelley Washington to become a factor in the passing game, and the veteran has responded well.
Staying on the injury front, you have to be a little more concerned with Terrell Suggs’ injured Achilles tendon than a week ago when the team was still “roughing” it in the Westminster heat.  Throughout training camp, we received reassurances that the heel injury was not serious, so most assumed it was a convenient excuse for the Pro Bowl linebacker to cruise through training camp.
But with the Ravens back at their comfy facility in Owings Mills this week, Suggs remains sidelined and has been since Aug. 2.  If he doesn’t play against the Falcons next Thursday, one would have to question his status for the start of the regular season, not just in terms of the Achilles but also his overall conditioning.
– Is Samari Rolle’s career over?
Whenever you learn about a football player dealing with a neck injury, it’s never taken lightly, and Rolle’s long stay on the physically unable to perform list only adds to the concern.
On Aug. 5, John Harbaugh said he expected Rolle to return to the practice field in the “next day or two,” but since then, the veteran corner has seen a second specialist regarding his injured neck.  There is no timetable for his return, and the organization has been very quiet regarding any specifics of the injury.
At this point, it seems likely Rolle will begin the season on the reserve PUP list (and not counting against the 53-man roster), keeping him sidelined for the first six weeks before the team must decide to activate him within a three-week window or place him on injured reserve.
Considering the Ravens have good depth in the defensive backfield, they will be patient with Rolle, especially since he would not count against the active roster.
Rolle dealt with two previous neck and spine injuries in his career, so you have to wonder if the cornerback has reached the end of the line.  If the current condition is as serious as it seems, why put his long-term health at risk?  Despite the appeal of playing on a team with Super Bowl aspirations, no one would blame the veteran for walking away from a very impressive NFL career.
– Much has been made about the Ravens’ difficulty in stopping the run on Monday night in their 24-23 victory over the New York Jets, but I still have a difficult time getting worked up over a small sample size in a preseason performance.
While the defense had difficulty with Leon Washington and—to a lesser extent—Thomas Jones, most of the breakdowns appeared to be related to hitting the wrong gaps when blitzing.  Defensive coordinator Greg Mattison confirmed this on Thursday and did not seem to be overly concerned with the lapses.
It did not surprise me to see the Ravens struggle with a shifty back like Washington, especially when you remember NFL teams do not game-plan for preseason opponents like they do in the regular season.
Keep in mind that despite the Ravens’ impressive run defense last season (third in the NFL), the unit struggled against Dallas’ Tashard Choice in Week 16 (17 carries, 90 yards) and Tennessee’s Chris Johnson (11 carries, 72 yards) in the playoffs before the rookie left the game with an ankle injury late in the first half.
In other words, the defense is very good—but not invincible—in stopping the run.  Shifty backs can match up well against the Ravens’ scheme, but I’m not ready to raise any red flags until we see the same breakdowns happening in the regular season.
– While most continue to focus on the uncertainty at the wide receiver position, the Ravens would also be wise to acquire a veteran offensive tackle.  Jared Gaither and Michael Oher are clearly the starters, but an injury to either would throw second-year tackle Oniel Cousins into the starting lineup, a potential disaster in the making.
Cousins has improved from a season ago but still commits too many penalties and is too inconsistent.  Though the coaching staff could shift Marshal Yanda to right tackle if something would happen to either Oher or Gaither (Oher would then slide to left tackle), a veteran tackle would not only add depth but would be a positive influence on the very talented—but young—starting tackles.
Perhaps there will be another Willie Anderson floating around next week, and the Ravens will give their offensive line depth a boost.