Camping out: Injuries hit Ravens hard

August 03, 2008|By Jamison Hensley | Jamison Hensley,Sun reporter

Ray Rice took nearly every snap one practice because four running backs were sidelined.

Chad Slaughter suited up as the starting left tackle about 12 hours after being signed because three linemen were banged up.

And Kelly Talavou, who is on his third team in a year, lined up in front of Ray Lewis because three defensive tackles went down.

More than a quarter of the Ravens' roster - 21 players - has missed at least one practice because of injury, underscoring the biggest difference from Brian Billick's training camp to the one being run by John Harbaugh this year.

Ending their second week of "Camp Hardball," the players are hurting, frustrated and tired.

Still, they won't say Harbaugh's pad-thumping, helmet-cracking practices are breaking them down. Instead, they believe the daily challenges are building this team up.

"Camaraderie comes from a sense of accomplishment," tight end Todd Heap said. "That's our goal right now: Fighting your way through the tough dog days. When it comes to the end, we'll say, 'We made it through this, and let's take on the season.' "

Harbaugh has the players practicing in old game jerseys, instilling the philosophy that you should play like you practice.

But ice packs, taped legs and arms in slings have become just as much of a fashion statement.

Although there's no record of the number of injuries during Billick's camps, this year's total is an increase over recent years. One team official estimated that Harbaugh has had more full-contact plays in his first week than Billick had in his entire camp last year.

"We're going to be ready for anything," center Jason Brown said. "Do you think the New England Patriots [the opponent for the preseason opener] are going to be hitting harder than this when we play them? Or the Cincinnati Bengals [in the season opener]?"

During his nine seasons with the Ravens, Billick was criticized for having a soft camp. Now, with the Ravens being one of the most banged-up teams in the NFL, Harbaugh is being criticized for having a tough one.

But Harbaugh, whose camp mirrors the one run by Philadelphia Eagles coach Andy Reid, cautions anyone from jumping to conclusions.

"We've had no injuries in live hitting," he said. "It's easy to say that it has, but that's not the case."

According to Harbaugh, most of the injuries have occurred in "thud" sessions, which are supposed to be drills run at half speed. But some players go full speed, causing others to get knocked off their feet. It was during one of those drills that offensive tackle Adam Terry fell over Rice and sprained his ankle.

Harbaugh laughs when he hears outsiders suggest that he should significantly curtail the hitting, because he hasn't had one complaint from a player.

"These are special guys, and I've never been around a group of guys that practice this hard. That's very encouraging," Harbaugh said. "The nicks and the bumps are part of it, but you don't want it. As a group, we need to do everything we can to avoid it. But we're getting work done, and that's a good thing."

Because of a thinning number of players, Harbaugh has cut some contact drills short and removed others completely during the past couple of days. He also rewarded his players with some time off this weekend, canceling two practices to provide extra rest.

Even with the recent changes, the players can feel the difference from last year's camp to this one.

"Yeah, the body is feeling it," Heap said. "I don't know what the percentages of my legs are right now, but it's not too good. It gets frustrating watching film and knowing you can run that route better, but my body won't let me now."

In addition to coming together to overcome the difficulties of camp, the Ravens have bonded from another Harbaugh change - remaining at the team hotel.

Under Billick, players could go home during camp. Harbaugh has thrown out that rule, instituting curfews and bed checks.

"Of course, it [stinks]," linebacker Jarret Johnson said. "But you got to do it as part of camp."

Before receiving some time off this weekend, the players hadn't seen their families since training camp began for the full team July 24.

Heap's wife and children stayed in Arizona because he doesn't come home at night. His only interaction with them is two phone calls a day.

"It's hard, but there's a lot harder things that people do to provide for their families," Heap said. "It's a small sacrifice. Hopefully the end result pays off."

By staying together, some players talked about an improvement in team chemistry. They eat together, go to meetings together and even hang out at night together.

"Honestly, you do grow as a team," Johnson said.

With the number of injuries, it seems as if the Ravens are dwindling as a team.

But the players are placing their trust in Harbaugh and his tough-love philosophy.

"He's got a plan, and we're buying into it," Johnson said. "We know the tough times are going to make us a better team."

jamison.hensley@baltsun.com

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