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OWINGS MILLS, Md. – Anyone who records soccer practices for a living quickly learns to tick off names and roster numbers on a team on the backcourts, a routine practice in attendance checking. This most mundane and mundane task — an almost unconscious act deep in preseason — is superficial but occasionally revealing.

In some places, the mere appearance of certain men wearing certain jerseys on a practice field will prompt instant headlines, tweets (we agree never to call them “X’s”) and phone calls to editors and/or producers. In these areas, in these practice grounds outside of Baltimore, two of these sights tower above all others and are a story in themselves. Is anyone, anyone, wearing one of those fancy black and gold jerseys given out only to quarterbacks with the number 8 on the back? And where is number 79?

Understandably. The Baltimore Ravens are mostly Super Bowl contenders when the men with those numbers are active on game days, and far worse when they’re not. Any chance of them resembling the former in 2023 could just be riding on the left ankle of one of these men.

This summer, the intrigue surrounding No. 8 — former unanimous MVP Lamar Jackson — has died down, though his season ended prematurely for the second year in a row due to injury: Jackson was healthy and present almost every day during spring and summer practice. As for No. 79, former All-Pro left tackle Ronnie Stanley — who had a single ill-starred football game between Week 8 of the 2020 season and Week 5 of 2022 due to two major surgeries on the same ankle — stokes any absence of fear among those who support this franchise or whose assets are associated with it.

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Stanley’s presence has become vital, second only to Jackson’s. The lack of training last week, including joint training sessions with the Commanders “to protect his ankle a little”, as coach John Harbaugh put it, conjures up images of sacks, strains and injuries, however benevolent the gesture Stanley and others that are best left to forget – things that cannot be repeated in 2023.

That Stanley, who was drafted sixth overall in 2016, even tops Baltimore’s tackle depth chart is a miracle given that his return from that second ankle surgery seemed in doubt until a Sunday night faced the Bengals in early October. (Stanley also confirmed a third operation on his “lower body,” without giving details.) Stanley’s previous start — Week 1 of 2021 — was an absolute disaster, necessitating repeat ankle surgery, and everyone from Stanley to his Teammates and coaches wondered if he would ever be the same. That he would quickly return to the Pro Bowl level and lead the playoffs was unthinkable at the time. And with that offense coming under more pressure from a variety of offseason upgrades (including Jackson’s massive contract extension) and Baltimore’s defensive woes, the Ravens will need even more of that from Stanley this season to get where they want to go.

“Yes, there certainly were doubts” about playing again, Stanley said at the start of camp. “Especially at the beginning of the injury where you’re really not sure how to run or whether to run again – you’re just limping, going somewhere and not really doing anything athletic. I really don’t know until you make the turnaround in rehab progression. To see firsthand, “Okay, I can do these exercises; I can feel comfortable doing those moves.’ I’ve slowly been building that confidence back.’

Week 5 saw Baltimore seething with excitement, fear, frustration and dismay over whether or when Stanley would start or finish a game again. Every word, tick and manner of Harbaugh was studied whenever he gave a quasi-update on the star’s nebulous return – sometimes the unsaid or the story his face told was perhaps more telling than the few words he did said. There have been many conspiracy theories as to why Stanley was out so long. It was quite a thing.

Two of Stanley’s understudy – Ja’Wuan James and Patrick Mekari – were injured in the first month of last season, and in Week 4 Harbaugh had to rely on rookie offensive lineman Daniel Faalele (a 6ft 8 project) Protecting Jackson’s blind side. The Ravens were 2-2, including two home losses, when Cincinnati — then the reigning AFC champions who defeated Baltimore twice in 2021 — came to town. Stanley played a third of the reps in one of the Ravens’ signature wins, but the incremental increase was put on hold in Week 6 when starting right tackle Morgan Moses was injured.

Stanley became an instant star again, but the tender dance continued. He left Week 11 in the third quarter when Jackson twisted his left ankle during a sack and was sidelined until Week 14.

Baltimore was 7-4 with Stanley in his comeback season, without 3-3.

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Given the questions surrounding Baltimore’s pass rush — Jadeveon Clowney was signed last week but is more of a run stuffer than quarterback chaser — and his secondary (an already thin group that lost their only established top cornerback, as Marlon Humphrey underwent foot surgery) and with the As the offensive changes identity under new coordinator Todd Monken, the Ravens desperately need Stanley to anchor an elite offensive line, especially since there is no clear starter at left. It’s the first time Stanley has been able to train and prepare for a season with any degree of normality since 2019 – 2020 has been changed by the pandemic – which bodes well for him and his team-mates.

“It definitely takes a lot away from the part of coming in and just getting back into football and learning how to cut and just be more coordinated,” Stanley said. “The whole process that I had to deal with before I don’t have to deal with now, and [I can] I just really focused on the football and my technique, which really helped me become a better player and a better leader overall.”

Grizzled’s offensive coach Joe D’Alessandris said, “That’s vital, just like everything else.” The unity on offense – all five guys play together, communicate – and they’re able to understand when everyone’s talking to each other. You are on the same page.”

Stanley’s game in 2022 was great, especially under the circumstances, as TruMedia only threw him one allowed sack and 12 runs in 287 pass-blocking snaps. (The graceful 6-6 tackle is a monster in the running game, too.) His replacement in 2021, Alejandro Villanueva, conceded 10 sacks and 44 hurries, was hit 55 times — and was eliminated immediately after the season. (Jackson’s 2021 season ended in Week 14 when he injured himself while retreating into the pocket.) The contrast was immediately felt as Stanley got back on the field after his arduous rehab paid off.

“He’s worked hard to get to where he is today,” said Center sophomore Tyler Linderbaum, a potential budding star. “He just keeps getting better and better.”

Since Stanley entered the league, the Ravens are 49-25 when he plays (including losing to the Raiders in Week 1 of 2021 when his ankle was clearly bad) and 21-19 when he’s not playing. With him, they pose a threat to the Lombardi Trophy, otherwise a possible wildcard team. Amazingly, he and Jackson haven’t played more than six games together in a season since 2019 — the year Jackson was the undisputed MVP and Baltimore’s dynamic running pattern revolutionized modern football as the Ravens secured the AFC’s top spot.

Stanley and Jackson have started and completed a total of 13 games together since 2019. They must at least reach this sum by 2023 so that the Ravens have a chance in the AFC North, arguably the best league in football. Any scenario in which they track Lombardi Trophy #3 must include numbers 8 and 79 front and center on match day.

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