Thursday, August 31
Talented defense leads Baltimore

How good will the Ravens be this year?

Brian Billick, one of the great offensive minds in the game, gets Tony Banks for a second year. Having familiarity with Billick's offense will help Banks tremendously and could make this a breakout year for him.

Billick has additional weapons to create big plays, like new tight ends Shannon Sharpe and Ben Coates, and rookies Travis Taylor and Jamal Lewis, who is out with a dislocated elbow.

Meanwhile, the Ravens' defense, one of the league's best, will keep them in every game.

Just ask owner Art Modell.

"I have to show restraint, but inwardly, I'm extremely confident about this season," Modell told one reporter.

He told another, "With unusual restraint for me, I want to be very, very sober about this thing. But I think this could very well be the best football team I've had in 40 years."

Those are the kind of expectations the Ravens face this year, and they seem eager for the challenge. TE Shannon Sharpe even compares the Ravens to the two Super Bowl teams he played on in Denver.

After four non-winning seasons in Baltimore since moving from Cleveland, the Ravens think they're ready to be a playoff team in the wake of their 6-3 record in the last nine games last year. Modell is particularly eager to win a Super Bowl before minority owner Steve Bisciotti takes control of the team in four years.

"If I can't get the Vince Lombardi Trophy in the next four years, I don't deserve it," Modell said.

The Ravens will be carried by a defense that was the second best in the league last season, and they retooled their offense by signing free agent tight ends Sharpe and Ben Coates and drafting running back Jamal Lewis and wide receiver Travis Taylor in the first round.

The player Baltimore will be counting on more than any is quarterback Tony Banks. He has to be more consistent and become more of a leader than he has been in the past. If Banks falters, the Ravens could go to backup Trent Dilfer. Getting productive play from the quarterback position is the key to their season.

Quarterbacks: Banks will open the season as the starter. Scott Mitchell opened the season last year and was yanked in the third period of the second game. Banks figures to last longer, but he has to produce early to keep his job. The Ravens play five of their first seven games on the road and don't have a major monetary commitment to him. They gave him only a $2 million signing bonus in a four-year deal, a move that prompted former Buccaneers QB Dilfer to sign a one-year contract and wait in the wings if Banks'can't get the job done.

Rookie Chris Redman has a lot of potential but is being groomed for the future. So either Banks or Dilfer -- both given second chances in the NFL -- has to be the answer. If Banks is successful, Dilfer figures to move on next year.
Grade: C

Running backs: The Ravens thought rookie Jamal Lewis and fullback Chuck Evans would form their starting backfield, but Lewis dislocated his elbow on his first carry in a scrimmage against Washington and didn't play in the first three preseason games, and Evans tore his triceps in the first exhibition game and may be out for three months. Fortunately, veteran Pro Bowl FB Sam Gash was still on the market, and the Ravens quickly signed him to replace Evans.

With Lewis likely to get off to a slow start after missing so much time, veteran Priest Holmes will have to carry the running load. Backup running back Jay Graham also went down in the exhibition opener with a high-ankle sprain. Unless Lewis makes a speedy recovery, the running attack may not be much better than it was last year, when the Ravens ranked 16th.
Grade: C

Wide receivers: Look for the Ravens to play a lot of two-tight-end offense with Sharpe and Coates until rookie Travis Taylor, who held out for nine days, makes up for lost time, and Patrick Johnson recovers from his broken collarbone. Qadry Ismail, who jump-started his career with 68 catches last year, will again play a big role.

Jermaine Lewis, starting until Johnson returns, and Brandon Stokley are backups. Sharpe is the key to upgrading a passing game that was 25th last year. He'll give the team the intermediate threat it lacked in '99.
Grade: B

Offensive linemen: Except for Pro Bowl left tackle Jonathan Ogden, this group is a work in progress. Guards Edwin Mulitalo and Mike Flynn (who sprained an ankle in the second exhibition game) are untested, and center Jeff Mitchell is a journeyman.

Harry Swayne, who broke a foot last year and pulled a hamstring in the first exhibition game, has to prove he can stay healthy. The Ravens don't have much depth if any of the starters are injured.
Grade: C

Defensive linemen: Even though there's a problem at tackle -- where Sam Adams, not known as the most motivated player, is replacing suspended Larry Webster, and Tony Siragusa just recently ended his holdout -- this is a solid unit anchored by defensive ends Michael McCrary and Rob Burnett.

Ray Lewis
Ray Lewis is the leader of Baltimore's high-powered defense.
McCrary had 11½ sacks last year, even though he was recovering from knee surgery, and the unsung Burnett is a force on the other side. The Ravens also have good depth with Keith Washington, Martin Chase, Marques Douglas and rookie Adalius Thomas. They can rotate their linemen to keep them fresh.
Grade: B

Linebackers: This unit is the strength of the team and probably comprises the best group of young linebackers in the league. Ray Lewis, who's in the best shape of his life after diligently working out to relieve the stress of his off-the-field problems, and Peter Boulware are Pro Bowlers, and Jamie Sharper, who becomes a free agent at the end of the year, is playing for a big contract.

The team has upgraded the backups with Brad Jackson in the middle and Anthony Davis, who sprained an ankle in the second exhibition game, joining Cornell Brown on the outside. Brown started the first three exhibition games because Boulware is recovering from shoulder surgery. Boulware should probably take the year off and give his shoulder more time to heal. But he's a gamer who probably will strap it up again and play in pain the way he has the last two years. If so, he risks his shoulder woes becoming a chronic injury that will bother him his whole career.
Grade: A

Defensive backs: In both 1998 and '99, the Ravens selected a cornerback with the 10th pick in the first round. But they've shown you don't always get the same value with the same pick. They were fortunate that Chris McAlister, the '99 selection, fell to the 10th pick because he's likely to become a Pro Bowler. But they reached for the '98 pick, Duane Starks, and he was benched last year for DeRon Jenkins, who left for San Diego via free agency. Now Starks has to prove he can handle the job.

Ageless Rod Woodson has made a smooth transition from cornerback to free safety, while strong safety Kim Herring has yet to live up to his 1997 second-round billing. Corey Harris and Anthony Poindexter are waiting in the wings if Herring leaves as a free agent at the end of the year.
Grade: B+

Special teams
The Ravens' two kickers, Matt Stover and punter Kyle Richardson, are solid, although Stover has a habit of slow starts. He rallied last year to make his last 18 field-goal attempts, while Richardson set an NFL record by dropping 39 punts inside the 20. But the coverage and return teams faltered under new special-teams coach Russ Purnell last year.

Jermaine Lewis wasn't as effective as a punt returner as he was under former coach Scott O'Brien, who went to Carolina when Ted Marchibroda was fired. The coverage teams also slipped. Purnell's under pressure to improve both units this year.
Grade: C+

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