The Ravens have a few areas to improve in when they host the Kansas City Chiefs tonight in preseason game No. 2, but the most competitive battle for a starting position is at inside linebacker.
Who is going to start next to Ray Lewis?
Third-year player Jameel McClain started 15 of 16 games at the weak-side position last season, but defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano has rotated McClain, Dannell Ellerbe and Brendon Ayanbadejo with the first unit throughout training camp.
Ellerbe is the most complete player of the three, but he spent last season in head coach John Harbaugh's dog house. Ellerbe, in his third season as a free agent out of the University of Georgia, wants to change that this season.
"Of course, this is going to be my best year," said Ellerbe, who had only 29 tackles in 2010. "I'm more mature and more experienced. This is my third year, so it has to be my best."
Maybe a sign of Ellerbe's maturity is to admit he made some mistakes last season when the coaching staff thought he was lackadaisical in his approach.
"I agree with that to some extent," said Ellerbe. "But this year, I'm taking notes and doing things I see the veterans do. I know this a marathon and not a sprint. My maturity level is different because I know what is going on. I know what to expect instead of listening to others and being blind to what is really happening. I know I have got to come out here and work all the time."
All three linebackers turned in solid games last week against the Philadelphia Eagles, but none were spectacular. The Ravens are waiting for one of them to separate from the others.
Ayanbadejo is extremely fast and can rush the passer, but is small. McClain has the ability to slip blocks and blitz, but has a tendency to over pursue. Ellerbe can be a bruiser inside, but has a tendency to work too high.
But if he turns up his game a notch, Ellerbe is the best of the three and could become the heir apparent to Lewis.
"I need to work on everything, every aspect of the game," said Ellerbe. "Last year, I really didn't know why I wasn't playing, but I didn't let it get to me. I know I'm in better shape than the previous two seasons, and I'm more determined than ever to do what it takes to get on the field.
"With Ray, I'm trying to soak in as much as I can before he is gone. To be the heir apparent, a lot will be expected."
Reid in for rude awakening
Rookie right offensive tackle Jah Reid, the Ravens' third-round pick out of Central Florida, has a lot of potential, but to expect him to start and have success in the season opener against the Pittsburgh Steelers is a stretch.
Reid might make substantial progress from a week ago, but he hasn't experienced anything like a Ravens/Steelers game, and he hasn't faced a player with the combination of speed and strength of a James Harrison or LaMarr Woodley.
The Ravens still have ample time to find a quality starter on the right side. If not, the Ravens better run a lot of strong side to the right to help Reid. A few prayers won't hurt, either.
Another slow start for secondary
The secondary has gotten off to slow starts the past three years, and this season is no exception.
Cornerbacks Jimmy Smith, a rookie, and veteran Domonique Foxworth have been slowed by leg injuries. Cornerbacks Chris Carr and Lardarius Webb struggled last week against the Eagles.
In the past, the group made dramatic improvements at the end of each season. The concern is that Pagano is no longer the secondary coach. You have to wonder if the Ravens will respond the same way under new secondary coach Teryl Austin.
Other areas that need to improve are tackling and the overall play of the offensive line, particularly at the tackle positions. It will be interesting to see how the timing routes have developed between recently acquired receiver Lee Evans and quarterbackJoe Flacco.
We'll also keep an eye on rookie receivers Torrey Smith and Tandon Doss, as well as tight ends Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta, running back Ricky Williams and ends/outside linebackers Pernell McPhee and Paul Kruger.
Ex-Ravens toughening up Chiefs?
All respect for any AFC West teams started to subside after the Ravens beat the Denver Broncos in the playoffs on the way to the Super Bowl title in the 2000 season.
Those West Coast teams just aren't physical, and that's exactly why Kansas City added former Ravens players Le'Ron McClain, Kelly Gregg and Jared Gaither. The Ravens crushed Kansas City, 30-7, last January during the opening round of the playoffs.
McClain basically said as much the other day in an interview with the Kansas City Star. The only word missing was "soft".
"We just took that mentality every day," he said of the Ravens' toughness. "That's the mentality we're going to have coming out here to KC: just being physical and being that demon on that field, just doing whatever we've got to do.
"I don't think they're trying to take anything from Baltimore or bring this over here; we're Kansas City Chiefs, not Baltimore Ravens."