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Ravens still have questions on offense

9/3/2004 - Baltimore Ravens

Editor's note: These previews were last updated Sept. 2 and don't reflect any moves made by the team after that.

The new Ravens owner, Steve Bisciotti, represents one of the few changes for
the defending AFC North champions, who bring back their starting offense and
defense nearly intact.

It's one of the most talented rosters in the NFL, featuring eight returning
Pro Bowl players and including the league's offensive and defensive Players
of the Year in RB Jamal Lewis and LB Ray Lewis, respectively.

Like their Super Bowl championship run in 2000, the formula for success will
be a conservative, ball-control offense and an attacking, ball-hawking
defense.

This philosophy might have to undergo change by midseason (read Nov. 1), when
Jamal Lewis is scheduled to stand trial on federal drug conspiracy charges.
His legal issues have cast a shadow of uncertainty over his future as well
as the Ravens' championship hopes.

Quarterbacks: For the first time in head coach Brian Billick's six-year
tenure with the Ravens, a quarterback will start consecutive season openers.
Kyle Boller, the NFL's second-lowest rated starter last season, has a strong
arm that allows him to make special throws, but the Ravens know it is more
important for him to make the right decisions, especially in a run-oriented
attack. Kordell Stewart will serve as the backup until Anthony Wright
recovers from offseason shoulder surgery, which is expected to force him to
miss the first two months. Stewart has the same accuracy troubles as Boller
but can create more with his feet. Josh Harris, a sixth-round pick, will be
groomed as the long-term backup to Boller. Grade: C-plus.

Running backs: An assortment of eight-man fronts and run blitzes couldn't
stop Jamal Lewis, who recorded the second-highest single-season rushing
total in NFL history last year (2,066 yards). He has a rare blend of size
and speed, running through linebackers and away from defensive backs. What
could stop Lewis is his Nov. 1 court date. If Lewis is lost for any part of
the season, the Ravens will turn to Musa Smith, who has a similar
power-running style but lacks Lewis' breakaway speed. Chester Taylor is an
underappreciated third-down back who caught 20 passes last season. FB Alan
Ricard was a Pro Bowl alternate for his stout lead blocking. Grade: A-minus.

Receivers: Though the Ravens failed to land Terrell Owens, they did improve
the weakest position on the team by trading for Kevin Johnson. He has the
best set of hands of any receiver on the team in the Billick era along with
the most proven track record. Starting alongside him is Travis Taylor, who
has never lived up to the billing of a top-10 pick and still struggles with
consistency. Devard Darling, a third-round pick, is the Ravens' most
polished rookie and should produce right away as the team's No. 3 receiver.
The Ravens' best big-play target remains Todd Heap. The Pro Bowl tight end
creates mismatches because he is too quick for linebackers and too big for
defensive backs. The Ravens use more two-TE formations than most teams
because of Terry Jones, one of the best straight-line blockers on the edge.
Grade: C-plus.

Offensive linemen: This is a big, powerful group that physically wears down defensive fronts in the running game despite being repeatedly outmanned. The left side remains the strength with the freakish physical ability of OLT Jonathan Ogden and a mauling run blocker in OLG Edwin Mulitalo. C Mike Flynn is an underrated center and is athletic enough to get to the second level on running plays. With Flynn out 6-8 weeks due to a broken collarbone, Casey Rabach will start in the middle. The right side of OG Bennie Anderson and OT
Orlando Brown is pure bulk and fits into the run-dominated scheme. Ethan
Brooks is limited as a backup tackle. Grade: B.

Defensive linemen: Stocky NT Kelly Gregg, a former practice-squad player,
gets the most of his ability and rarely gets budged because of his excellent
use of leverage. DE Anthony Weaver is the Ravens' most athletic lineman and
used his quickness to record five sacks, tops among linemen. DE Marques
Douglas, who could miss the first two weeks of the regular season with a
dislocated elbow, is a high-motor player who can be disruptive in streaks.
Another blue-collar lineman, Jarret Johnson, would replace Douglas in the
starting lineup. NT Maake Kemoeatu has developed a better understanding of
the game and will figure more into the team's rotation. Dwan Edwards, a
second-round pick, is expected to have more of an impact in the second half
of the season. Grade: B.

Linebackers: Ray Lewis remains the top player at his position, and perhaps
in the game. Known for his uncanny ability to chase down running backs all
over the field, Lewis doesn't gain as much notoriety for his preparation,
breaking down game tape in such detail that he can anticipate plays by
picking up tendencies. OLB Peter Boulware's rehabilitation of his knee is
progressing slowly, and he could miss a chunk of the first month. Adalius
Thomas, a starter last season who has battled inconsistency, will fill in
for Boulware. The development of Terrell Suggs from college DE to pro OLB
has been positive. Still, Suggs excels at rushing the passer, surprising
offensive tackles with his deceptive power. The sleeper of this group is OLB
Roderick Green, a fifth-round pick who could make an immediate impact as a
situational pass rusher. Grade: A-minus.

Defensive backs: LCB Chris McAlister finally developed into a consistent shutdown defender and took some of the league's best receivers out of games last season. On the other side, Gary Baxter is equally as physical but lacks McAlister's recovery speed. SS Ed Reed is a playmaker who has stunning instincts for just being in his third season. FS Will Demps is the secondary's weak link because he hesitates too often. Deion Sanders, who is 37 years old and has been out of the NFL since 2000, will likely take over at nickel back. The Ravens hope his once-considerable skills haven't deteriorated too much. Providing depth are Corey Fuller, whose speed has declined quickly, and Chad Williams, who has a knack for finding the ball and repeatedly makes an impact as the dime back. Grade: B-plus.

Special teams: What PK Matt Stover lacks in leg strength, he makes up for in
accuracy. With a career success rate of 82 percent, Stover is nearly
automatic inside the 40-yard line. P Dave Zastudil has not lived up to
expectations as a 2002 fourth-round pick but has placed 52 punts inside the
20-yard line in two years. RS Lamont Brightful has struggled with confidence
and consistency in fielding punts. Kickoff specialist Wade Richey is a solid
weapon, recording 14 touchbacks last season, which was second-best in the
NFL. Grade: B.

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