Each Tuesday, NFL Network reporter Albert Breer will share his thoughts on topics around the league as teams transition from the previous Sunday's game to the next encounter on the schedule. Today, he begins with a look at the AFC North defense that's actually getting younger.
Plenty of things happen during training camp that can stand out. Sometimes, they solidify a thought on a team. Other times, they change a perception. And then, there's what I saw in Owings Mills, Md., in August.
That's where the Ravens train and where my perception of them was muddied. For a team that won playoff road games in all three of its years under John Harbaugh, and whose foundation stood on its veterans, I witnessed a strong reliance on younger, less proven players. That made a steady franchise's season much tougher to forecast.
So far, so good.
That same youth has the Ravens looking faster and more explosive. The obvious changes are at the offensive skill positions, where 24-year-old Dennis Pitta and 26-year-old Ed Dickson have replaced 31-year-old Todd Heap at tight end, and 22-year-old Torrey Smith is opposite Anquan Boldin rather than 37-year-old Derrick Mason.
But maybe more significant are the changes on defense.
The Ravens now have six players 27 or younger (see table, right) starting around cornerstones Ray Lewis (36), Ed Reed (33) and Terrell Suggs (28). That's even with 23-year-old corner Jimmy Smith still working his way back from a high ankle sprain, and not including young players like Pernell McPhee and Sergio Kindle whose roles figure to grow. Add that to new blood-thirsty coordinator Chuck Pagano -- who players compare to ex-Ravens assistant Rex Ryan -- and results have been swift.
The Ravens are third in total defense, up from 10th last year, but it's the playmaking categories where the renovations have really shown up. Pagano's crew has registered a league-leading 14 takeaways, already more than halfway to last year's total of 27, and 11 sacks.
The question that's still left is the one that's often been asked of Baltimore the past few years -- can they be consistent with it? The loss to the Titans in Week 2 shows there is still work to be done, but the Ravens certainly displayed what they are capable of.
Time to transition to Painter
Painter didn't set the world on the fire Monday night, completing just 13 of his 30 passes for 281 yards, two touchdowns and no picks. But with the team 0-4, there really doesn't seem to be much sense in continuing to roll out graybeard Kerry Collins, he of the 65.9 passer rating.
And no, Collins' signing wasn't exactly a vote of confidence in Painter. However, let's not forget the Matt Cassel story from 2008. The Patriots didn't know what they'd get from the ex-USC backup when he took over for Tom Brady, and his experience in the offense and the coaches' knowledge of how to deploy him paid off in an 11-win season. Cassel wasn't a great quarterback that year, and the Patriots played a punching-bag schedule, but New England was in position to manage the situation with him.
The Colts should be able to do the same with Painter. Until he gets a chance to play consistently, it's impossible for anyone to know just what Indianapolis has in the third-year QB. Maybe he falls on his face. There was plenty of evidence Monday that he might. But so what if he does?
The bottom line is this Manning situation can bring growth for the Colts going forward, giving them a stronger assessment of the roster and a chance for the players -- particularly on defense and along the offensive line -- to develop without the huge advantages Manning brings. In the same light, they can get a good read on a quarterback they've spent two-plus years rearing.
All this could put the team in better position to make decisions in the offseason. And things could get interesting in March and April, particularly considering there's a pretty fair chance that Manning's situation might remain cloudy when the draft rolls around.
The Eagles need to adjust ... quickly
Despite all the spending, it's hard to get around the fact that Philadelphia's two primary questions -- along the offensive line and with first-year defensive coordinator Juan Castillo -- remain unanswered with the season at the quarter point.
There's some hope with the line, despite the fact Michael Vick looked like Jerry trying to elude Tom in dodging the Niners' rush. While Jason Peters (hamstring) will likely be down until after the Week 7 bye, he'll return when it counts. The light could flicker on for road-grading, first-round pick Danny Watkins, who isn't starting yet; and rookie center Jason Kelce should improve.
The defense is another story. There's undeniable talent, but some evaluators around the league are taking note of square pegs in round holes. And they inevitably question whether or not Castillo, who worked with the Eagles' offensive line the past 13 years and last coached defense at Kingsville (Tex.) High in 1989, has the experience or knowhow to make the needed adjustments.
"Their system doesn't consistently use the strengths of the players they have, and they often allow opponents' offenses to dictate how they use their personnel," said one personnel executive. "Nnamdi (Asomugha) is a press corner. He's playing more zone. (Jason) Babin is a pass rusher, so teams run on him. And outside on (Cullen) Jenkins, they're small up front with small linebackers behind them. The problem is the new DC hasn't been versed in the adjustments needed in-game, and those happen fast."
Bottom line: It's hard for a coach to adjust his personnel and scheme when he is adjusting to so much himself. And at 1-3, with trips to Buffalo and Washington next, the Eagles need to find a way -- and fast -- to scratch through to their Week 7 bye.
McNabb no longer an NFL starting QB?
The Colts aren't the only team from the conference championship games of two seasons ago at 0-4. The Vikings are right there with them, and the heat is now starting to rise on Donovan McNabb's seat as a starting quarterback, not just with that team, but in the NFL.
The ex-Eagle is now 5-12 as a starter since Philly jettisoned him, and he's lost seven straight. In those 17 games, McNabb has completed 340 of his 583 passes for 4,057 yards, 18 touchdowns and 17 picks. In the fourth quarter during that span, he's just 104 of 184 for 1,148 yards, four touchdowns and six picks.
The larger problem here for Minnesota might be how McNabb reacts to a demotion.
But if the Vikings believe Ponder won't be completely lost, the time to play the rookie is coming, particularly so they can get a better read on the quarterback prior to next season. If not now, then the Week 9 bye could provide a good opportunity to make the switch.
Newton continues to learn
Speaking of young quarterbacks, doesn't seem like playing "too early" is having much of a negative effect on Carolina rookie Cam Newton. Through four games, he's got a staggering 1,386 yards passing (behind only Tom Brady and Drew Brees).
And though he could be more efficient (59.5 completion percentage) and judicious (5-5 touchdown-interception ratio), the fact that he keeps coming back firing is an awfully good sign that he'll continue to learn.
The debate over whether he or Jimmy Clausen should start seems like it happened 10 years ago, and Newton's fast becoming Exhibit A for those who subscribe to the trial-by-fire approach of bringing up a quarterback.
» I know the pick sixes are excruciating to watch for Jason Garrett, so I have to wonder what happens next April if a quarterback he likes is sitting there for Dallas in Round 1, with Tony Romo down to the final two years of the deal he inked in 2007.
» The Packers are proving themselves, with these systematic beatdowns, to have not only the league's best team, but also its most complete roster.
» With all our talk of the quarterback situations above, no one did a better job of overhauling at that spot than the Titans, who have a rock-solid Matt Hasselbeck starting and promising rookie Jake Locker learning behind him.
» Not getting enough credit: The 49ers' stout front seven.
» Will be interesting to watch Lawrence Timmons switch from inside to outside linebacker -- two totally different positions with very different responsibilities -- in the Steelers' 3-4 to make up for the loss of James Harrison.
Follow Albert Breer on Twitter @AlbertBreer