Cam Cameron did a great job in his first year as the offensive coordinator for the Baltimore Ravens. The running game improved from 16th in 2007 to fourth in the league in 2008 and the offense in general was finally more of a supplement and less of a detriment to the Ravens' dominant defense. The team went deep into the playoffs, losing at Pittsburgh in the AFC title game.
But the Ravens have been a strange bird this offseason. After ranking 28th in the passing game last season, the team did nothing to upgrade there, unless you count signing special-teams ace Kelley Washington. Not even a late-round rookie receiver is on the roster. They did bring in tight ends L.J. Smith and rookie Davon Drew, but they're not field-stretchers as much as short-area chain movers.
There is one constant: The personnel hasn't changed. Joe Flacco will be back for his second season under center, the three-headed running back will not only return but might be better and Cameron has an even better feel for his roster. We caught up with Cameron and asked him what he sees in his offense heading into 2009.
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I'd like to start with Le'Ron McClain, who was such a great asset for you last year. What went into the decision to move him to fullback?
Cameron: You know, I've read that everybody thinks we've moved him back to fullback and I'm not sure where that came from. He's a running back. That's the way I view him. To me, Lorenzo Neal is a fullback, and a great one. Le'Ron, to me, and I felt like this when I saw him in college, is a potential running back. He's also a guy that can play fullback, play tailback, and actually we're going to use him a little bit at tight end this year. He's just a football player that can do multiple things. He will definitely get carries like he did last year. Probably not as many just because our pass protection unit has evolved, Joe [Flacco] has evolved, we have more tight ends this year. So he won't get the number of carries but he's going to carry the football. He's physical, I like that style and we're probably going to ask him to do more this year than we did last year.
As far as different spots and roles on the field?
Cameron: Correct. It may not be carries, but we're going to ask him to do a lot.
It's interesting that you think of him as a potential tight end.
Cameron: Well, he's between 260 and 270 pounds. And with all the injuries we've had at tight end ... and he understands how to do that stuff now.
Is the weight thing overblown with him?
Cameron: I haven't heard much about it. The weight hasn't been much of an issue since I've been here. Weight is all relative to how a guy carries it. Some people say a guy has to be X amount of pounds to be a running back. To me, it's that every guy is different. I have not seen a weight problem with him.
Could you give me an update on Willis McGahee's knee? How has he been limited at camp?
Cameron: He's been full speed [at the team's last minicamp] and has looked as good as he's looked since I've seen him. I'm just optimistic. He missed the entire training camp last year and he should come into training camp this year ready to go, which is exciting.
And he's been working with the second unit while Ray Rice has been with the first unit?
Cameron: You know, I don't know where that came from either. I guess people have their own view of these things. We haven't set the depth chart. Obviously, Ray has had a tremendous offseason. They all took look-squad, they all worked with the first unit and the second unit. We're just interchanging backs with both units. There are going to be times this year where you're going to see both of those guys if not all three of those guys in the game at the same time. So there's no real pecking order right now.
And based on last year's use of all three backs, I'd be surprised if there ever was a hard-and-fast pecking order.
Cameron: Yeah. It truly is running back by committee, and I am convinced that all three of those guys are about winning. Not about contracts or other stuff, and I think all three want to win and they know we're going to need all three of them.
We've heard that Ray Rice has had a solid offseason. Could you expand on what he's done?
Cameron: He's just playing with great speed. His running has improved, his pass protection has always been good but it's even better and his route-running and catching have really improved. He's playing with a lot of confidence.
How much time have you spent with Joe Flacco this offseason and where has he improved the most from last year?
Cameron: Obviously I spend a lot of time with those guys with quarterbacks coach Hue Jackson. At all of our quarterback schools, we spent time working on his technique, mostly on the waist down trying to give him a little more strength, a little more knee flexion, little technical things. He carried that over into the practices and he's gotten a lot stronger. You can see that he's doing a lot less thinking and playing and reacting, which is what you want to get a quarterback to do. He's really improved.
Might the playbook expand more now with a season under his belt?
Cameron: To a degree. We've expanded anyway, and really Joe never kept us from expanding it. Last year we were really trying to develop our offensive line because we had a lot of second- and third-year guys, but they're further along so that should allow us to expand more. With Joe, there really wasn't a lot we couldn't do because of him.
Cameron: Todd has been banged up and even toward the end of last year couldn't practice. We know L.J.'s had some injuries as well, but Todd was having to play 60-to-70 plays a game, so we needed more depth. Quinn Sypniewski was out and our next guy was someone we moved from defense, who I think will be real good, in Edgar Jones, and then we drafted Davon Drew. So we just needed more depth -- we had to play a tackle at tight end last year -- so this gives us the ability to put two tight ends on the field at the same time that both are legit threats. They're both good blockers and receivers, so I think that's going to help us.
Is it hard to get a good feel for the offense without Derrick Mason out there?
Cameron: Not really, because I know exactly what he can do. The important thing from that perspective is what kind of feel the coordinator and quarterback have for the guy. I think Joe and I both have a great feel for him. We know what he can do, he runs his routes so precise and he's really an easy guy to throw to. Some receivers you kind of have to get in a groove with them whereas Mason is special and you can call a play and know he'll get open.
Word on the street is that Marcus Smith is pulling out all the stops to get your attention this offseason. Could you tell me about him and what his strengths are?
Cameron: Here's a guy who played running back and receiver in college. He's a football player and the one receiver we have who will be a major factor in the kicking game. He's a good blocker, and he's still got a long way to go but he's becoming a good route runner. He brings a physical presence as he's an old-school tough guy. The final piece for him is going to be his ability to catch consistently. He has good hands, he's just got to keep working to the point where he has great hands.
Cameron: Yeah I think everyone would assume that Matt Birk would be seamless, but we all know as coaches that no matter how long a guy has been in the league, there's still a lot to learn. The thing that impressed me about Matt was that he signed a contract, got his family packed up and moved to Baltimore and got right in the weight room and started meeting with offensive line coach John Matsko. It'll look seamless, but it really took a lot of work, which is what a guy like this does. He's working at it and he's helped us tremendously.
As for Oher, he's been lining up at right tackle but we'll give him three days at left tackle at our rookie minicamp so he's ready to go both ways, and he gets better every minute of every day. This guy likes football. One thing he doesn't do, and I remember saying this about Joe last year, he doesn't repeat mistakes. That's a huge attribute to have as a young player.
You guys reportedly focused on scheming against your division rivals in your last week of minicamp. Tell me what that's like -- is it difficult to gauge what a defense will be like this year when you haven't seen them on film yet?
Cameron: Well, we know for the most part who their personnel is going to be. So you tweak it as you talk to your team. Then, once a coordinator has been in the league for a while it gets harder every year. You might know more about the league but the league knows more about you. For example, going up against [Browns defensive coordinator] Rob Ryan, I've gone up against him when he was at Oakland but I know he and Eric Mangini will come up with some kind of scheme that they both feel good about. Cincinnati will tweak their scheme a little bit but obviously they've got their staff back. It's a best guess, and that's why when we teach defenses to our offense, we really teach all 31 teams at the same time. We want them to have a view after the offseason of every team's schemes. Then you tie that in to the teams that you're playing. It's not as exact as it will be, but at this point in time we should be in the ballpark.
Is there anything else about the Ravens offense that you'd like to brag about or might be of interest to the football world?
Cameron: Everybody's excited about what we've done, and I can speak for our offense when I say that we don't think we've done anything. That's the good news. Last year, we gave up the second-fewest sacks in the organization's history, and we gave up way too many sacks in everybody's mind. We had the fewest or second-fewest number of turnovers in the team's history and we feel like we turned the ball over way too much. That's what I like about our guys -- we led the league in time of possession and there were still several opportunities where we could have stayed on the field longer. I really like our guys' approach, they're excited about the direction we're headed, but in no way do our guys think we've even scratched the surface of what we can and will be.
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