When the Baltimore Ravens take the field Monday morning, it represents more than another step in this year's unusual, pandemic-altered training camp.
It's the first time the Ravens put on the pads and hit since their shocking playoff loss to the Tennessee Titans seven months ago.
Does the sting of that defeat still linger on a team that returns all but one starter or has Baltimore moved past the disappointment?
"It’s both," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "It’s history -- you move on, and you move forward. But it informs us; shared experiences become part of your culture and part of what we grow into going forward. So, we take it with us, and it definitely motivates us, and we learn from it. You win or you learn, and we learned a lot from that game."
In 2012, the Ravens used a bitter loss to the New England Patriots in the previous season's AFC Championship game as motivation for a Super Bowl title run. In 2019, Lamar Jackson used his first playoff loss -- the one in which the Chargers supposedly provided a blueprint to defend him -- to fuel an NFL MVP season.
Here are the top questions surrounding a Ravens team that faces the pressure of being a Super Bowl favorite that has to prove it can deliver in the postseason:
Has the run defense been fixed?
The Ravens believe so. When asked about the run defense, defensive coordinator Don "Wink" Martindale said the Ravens got bigger and faster where they needed to do so this offseason. Baltimore drafted laser-quick middle linebacker Patrick Queen in the first round and beefed up the defensive line with Calais Campbell (6-foot-8, 300 pounds) and Derek Wolfe (6-5, 285) in free agency. "I’ve got the twin towers right next to me," nose tackle Brandon Williams said of Campbell and Wolfe. "I don’t see how offenses can come at us, man."
The Ravens have always taken a lot of pride in their run defense, which was a key barometer last season. In the Ravens' three losses in 2019, they allowed rushing yards of 140 (at Kansas City), 193 (home against Cleveland) and 217 (against Tennessee in the postseason). It marked just the second time in the Ravens' existence that they gave up over 4 yards per carry in a season.
Will the wide receivers become more involved?
That depends on the development of a handful of young targets. There's plenty of buzz surrounding the bigger and faster Marquise "Hollywood" Brown, who gained 23 pounds this offseason and is fully recovered from foot surgery. Miles Boykin, a second-year receiver like Brown, made just 13 catches last season but showed a lot of promise last summer. The Ravens are intrigued about the impact of rookie third-round pick Devin Duvernay, a highly productive pass-catcher in college who was one of general manager Eric DeCosta's favorite prospects in the draft.
Offensive coordinator Greg Roman recently bristled at those who criticized the use of the team's wide receivers last season, pointing out that they ranked eighth in the league with 17 touchdown catches.
"So, if we are not throwing to wideouts every play, we’re throwing a bunch of touchdowns to them," Roman said. But Jackson indicated improving his throws to the outside has been a focus this offseason. Last season, wide receivers were targeted 422 times, the fewest by a Ravens team since 2008 (Joe Flacco's rookie season).
Does Patrick Queen start in the season opener?
This has become an even bigger question this season because the coronavirus led the NFL to cancel offseason workouts in the spring and all of the preseason games. This hurts a young prospect such as Queen, who made a total of 16 career starts at LSU. The other two middle linebackers drafted in the first round by the Ravens -- Ray Lewis (27 starts in college) and C.J. Mosley (29) -- set a high bar when they started immediately as rookies, but they also had more experience in college.
Baltimore is banking on Queen to jump into the starting lineup after the team didn't re-sign Josh Bynes and Patrick Onwuasor. The only inside linebacker on the Ravens' roster who has started an NFL game is L.J. Fort. The coaching staff can really gauge Queen's instincts this week during full-team contract drills. But Queen exudes maturity, confidence and a high football IQ.
"It’s just like I told him: ‘If you are going to make a mistake, make it a 100-miles-per-hour mistake,'" Martindale said. "We can live with that.”
Who replaces Marshal Yanda?
The biggest training camp battle is at right guard, a spot that was held down by eight-time Pro Bowler Marshal Yanda before his retirement this offseason. D.J. Fluker, a seven-year starter in the NFL, is the early favorite based on his experience and familiarity with offensive line coach Joe D'Alessandris. But the Ravens haven't been overly effusive when asked about Fluker, who hasn't been ranked higher than 45th among guards the past four seasons by Pro Football Focus.
Whoever loses the battle for the starting center spot -- either Matt Skura or Patrick Mekari -- could become a candidate at right guard. Ben Powers, a fourth-round pick from a year ago, and rookies Tyre Phillips and Ben Bredeson should also get looks here, too. "Somebody has to grab the brass ring, so to speak, and go for it," Roman said.
Can Lamar Jackson take the next step as a passer?
Sure, it sounds strange to say Jackson has to improve throwing the ball after he led the NFL with 36 touchdown passes and ranked third in the league with a 113.3 passer rating. But Jackson has even acknowledged he needs to get more consistent with his passing, especially deep downfield. On throws of 20 yards or longer, Jackson completed 36.2% of his throws (17 of 47), which ranked 21st in the NFL.
Of course, no matter what success Jackson has in the regular season, he'll ultimately be judged on how he fares in the postseason. That's the type of criticism that comes after you lose your first two postseason games.
“I just need to go out there and do my job; go out there and win games and make it to the playoffs," Jackson said. "But now, we just have to focus on the Cleveland Browns, [the Ravens' season-opening opponent]. When we get back to the playoffs, we [will] go from there."