Is Joe Still Cool?

Second-year Qb Looks To Put Camp Struggles Behind Him

August 13, 2009|By Jamison Hensley | Jamison Hensley,jamison.hensley@baltsun.com

When the Ravens open the preseason against the Washington Redskins tonight, fans at M&T Bank Stadium will welcome a new defensive coordinator, another highly touted first-round draft pick and perhaps a different quarterback.

Last season, it was Joe Cool who led the Ravens to the AFC championship game. But at this year's training camp, Fiery Flacco has surprisingly surfaced at times.

One day after not reading the defense properly, Flacco walked to the sideline and threw down his helmet in frustration. A few days later, he missed an open receiver in the end zone, which led to his clapping his hands in the middle of the field and shouting an expletive in disgust.

It'll be interesting to see whether Flacco returns to his usual calm self or he continues to show an emotional side.

"No one should read anything into that," a teammate said. "If you know Joe, he is just pushing himself harder than anyone else."

With 31 days left before the Sept. 13 season opener, the pressure is on Flacco and the Ravens to improve their passing attack. The Ravens averaged 175.5 yards passing last season, fifth-worst in the NFL.

But some media and fans haven't been impressed with the progress at training camp. Flacco has thrown a high number of interceptions, which is uncharacteristic of the 2008 first-round pick. Last season, the rookie threw five interceptions in his last 11 regular-season games.

Offensive coordinator Cam Cameron isn't panicking.

"I'd be concerned if he weren't throwing some interceptions, because now's the time to test your limits," Cameron said. "The only way your quarterback can grow is to try to squeeze some balls in at this time of year to find the limits - find the limits of the receiver, find the limits of the defender, find the limits of your protection.

"Then, as the season approaches, obviously it starts to change. Now, if he's doing it every snap, which he's not doing that, [I'd be concerned]. But that's the only way I know."

In the preseason opener, Flacco is scheduled to play at least the first quarter. Troy Smith will quarterback the second and third quarters, and John Beck will finish.

For all the quarterbacks, Cameron's message is simple: Hit your targets.

"In the preseason, I want to throw completions," Cameron said. "That could be up the field [or] underneath. I want to see completions inside the numbers, up the field, sideline to sideline. That's what we're going to try to do this preseason.

"For us to improve our offense, we've got to throw the football better. Obviously, it starts with the quarterback."

But the biggest question mark isn't Flacco. It's the wide receivers.

Mark Clayton will miss at least two preseason games with a hamstring injury. Derrick Mason dislocated his finger Tuesday. And Demetrius Williams is nursing a hamstring injury.

If the team's top three receivers are sidelined or limited because of the injuries, the Ravens would likely rely on Justin Harper, Marcus Smith and Kelley Washington for a bulk of the game.

"I'm just dropping back, finding my open guy and trying to throw it to him," Flacco said. "It doesn't really matter who it is."

There's similar uncertainty with the offensive line that will protect Flacco. Left tackle Jared Gaither (neck), left guard Ben Grubbs (ankle) and right guard Marshal Yanda (knee) are dealing with injuries.

Only the two newest additions to the line - center Matt Birk and right tackle Michael Oher - are locks to start. This will be the NFL debut for Oher, the Ravens' strong and athletic first-round pick out of Mississippi.

"I want him being aggressive," Cameron said of Oher. "Until they get game experience, we want our guys aggressive, and then we can teach him when not to be overly aggressive. But we're going to come out, we're going to get his hands on the ground, we're going to get his heels off the ground, and let him come off the ball and get after people."

This also marks the first game for new defensive coordinator Greg Mattison. The former linebackers coach was promoted this offseason to replace Rex Ryan, who became head coach of the New York Jets.

Unlike Ryan's unpredictable style, Mattison said, his philosophy is playing a more straightforward base defense.

"I feel like we've got the players that if they play like they can - and they will - you don't have to be real exotic all the time," he said. "You should be able to get pressure with a four-man front. And with the way our secondary is practicing, you feel confident that we should be able to cover people without bringing overloads and pressures all the time."

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