Five observations on the Baltimore Ravens, based on the preseason game at Philadelphia on Aug. 20 and videotape review:
1. Baltimore officials keep insisting that they could still win, and win by running the ball, even if star tailback Jamal Lewis somehow is taken off the field this season by his federal drug problems in Atlanta, with the trial set to commence Nov. 1. They may be correct, given that backups Musa Smith and Chester Taylor combined for 100 yards on 18 rushes Friday night, but we're betting that Ravens officials really don't want to test their theory very much. We'll still go with LaDainian Tomlinson of San Diego as the league's best runner but, boy, Lewis isn't very far behind, that's for sure. The four-year veteran played only four series on Friday night, and carried eight times for 39 yards, but it was obvious that the fifth man in NFL history to rush for 2,000 yards in a season could very easily be in line for an unprecedented encore, especially if the Baltimore passing game remains as woeful as it was in 2003. You really can't be a great runner unless you are also a great cutback runner, right? Well, Lewis is such a rare guy, a big back with quick feet and incredible long speed for a guy his size, that his ability to see the cutback crease is often overshadowed by those other attributes. But when Lewis sees the backside hole, he gets to it with authority, and is able to square and shoulders and run with great pad level. He has enough power to rip a defender's arms out of his sockets and, when he gets out into space, can open up like a much smaller runner. Even if quarterback Kyle Boller improves dramatically in 2004, Lewis remains the unquestioned centerpiece on offense. Despite a style that looks a little too upright, Smith looks like a good, tough back, and he catches the ball better than most people felt he might. Still, this is Lewis' offense, and the Ravens need to have him available for the entire season. As good as Smith and Taylor might be, it would be na´ve to believe there would not be a pretty significant dropoff if Lewis is sidelined, by injury or the law, for any appreciable amount of time.
2. When head coach Brian Billick hired veteran assistant Mike Nolan in 2001 as a wide receivers aide, a lot of people scratched their heads, and with good reason. In his eight previous NFL seasons, with three different teams, Nolan had not only worked on the defensive side of the ball, but was a coordinator. But give credit to Billick for displaying great foresight. He knew that, at some point, then-Ravens defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis would depart for a head coaching gig. And he also knew that, when such a day arrived, he already has Lewis' replacement on his staff. Nolan has done a superb job, not only in maintaining the level of brilliance of a unit that he inherited, but in changing the scheme to a 3-4 "base" front to address strengths, and in developing younger players as starters and key backups. Under his stewardship, the Baltimore defense ranked 22nd in 2002 but jumped to No. 3 last season. No reason, given Nolan's creativity, that it won't maintain that kind of status this season. It's a testimony to Nolan that, despite teaching an up-the-field style, the Ravens are still disciplined against the run, no small feat for a unit that led the NFL in sacks in 2003, with 47. That the Ravens will send blitzers from all over the field was evident in last Friday night's game against the Eagles, but also on the opening defensive series of the preseason. On the initial third-and-long of the exhibition opener against Atlanta on Aug. 12, Nolan sent free safety Will Demps on a blitz from deep in the secondary, and he buried Michael Vick for a nine-yard loss. Rest assured: Down to just one dominant pass rusher, second-year veteran Terrell Suggs, because it appears that four-time Pro Bowl linebacker Peter Boulware will miss the beginning of the campaign while rehabilitating from offseason knee surgery, Nolan will still find a way to pressure the quarterback. Baltimore had seven defenders in 2003 with at least three sacks each, the league high, further evidence that Nolan doesn't necessarily need a guy to get 15 sacks (although Suggs could do that) to come hard at the pocket. Even with the comeback of the 3-4, and more teams adding it to their repertoire, Nolan and the Ravens still seem a step ahead of the pack. Sure, it was a preseason game, but the Ravens held the Eagles to just 282 yards Friday and more than half that total came on two long pass plays. There was a time, not too long ago, when it seemed that Nolan was on the fast track toward a head coaching job, and then he got derailed. Another strong season by the defense could put him back in the fast lane.
3. Even in a preseason outing, Ray Lewis plays with so much passion he overshadows the rest of the Baltimore linebacker corps, and that's too bad because the league's premier defender is surrounded by some pretty good players. Suggs, who won't even turn 22 until mid-October, is still learning the nuances of linebacker play, but will start on the left side and should improve on his 12 sacks of a year ago now that he is more than a situational guy. Ed Hartwell, who lines up next to Lewis in the 3-4 "base" defense, had 145 tackles and three sacks in 2003 and is one of the NFL's great secrets. Boulware, as noted, will likely miss his first season opener and, while that is a setback for the Ravens, they need no pity. That's because, in Adalius Thomas and Cornell Brown, the Ravens have players who are more than capable of holding the fort until Boulware returns. A Pro Bowl player for his performance on special teams, Thomas is the better pass rusher and Brown handles the run a little better. A few weeks ago, we wrote a story on the deepest positional units in the league. Having seen the Baltimore 'backer corps, it might now be the best in terms of quality and quantity. There are four veteran backups -- T.J. Slaughter and Bart Scott in addition to Thomas and Brown -- who have combined to average 54.8 regular-season appearances and 20 starts. All but Scott have played in more than 40 games and started more than 25 contests. And those, folks, are numbers that really quantify the quantity of solid players at the spot which fuels the Ravens defense. And that's not even accounting for rookie Roderick Green, a fifth-round selection from Central Missouri who has drawn rave reviews. A natural pass rusher with explosiveness, Green was an end in college and one of those hybrid-type "edge" players who fits so well into the 3-4. He had four tackles and a sack on Friday night, seems to have already secured a roster spot, and will probably bump one of the veterans out of a job.
4. Baltimore still possesses plenty of talent in the secondary but sorely needs to get its "franchise" cornerback, Chris McAlister, into camp. His continuing holdout, coupled with the lung condition that will sideline "nickel" cornerback Dale Carter for the entire season, has left the unit pretty thin. Even if Deion Sanders ends his three-year hiatus from the NFL and signs with the Ravens, which could happen by week's end, this is still a unit in need of some help. The Ravens surrendered pass plays of 81 and 62 yards on Friday night, the first of those on a play in which Eagles wide receiver Terrell Owens simply beat cornerback Gary Baxter straight up the field. Baxter is one of those defensive backs who has bounced back and forth between safety and corner and, despite a solid season on the outside in 2003 (with 106 tackles, three interceptions, 16 passes defensed and a sack thrown in for good measure), you wonder if he will ever settle in. He does a tremendous job of supporting the run, will come up and take on blockers versus the sweep, but does not have great catchup speed against the pass and will have some concentration lapses. Corey Fuller, who started at the opposite corner, is a bit long in the tooth now, at age 33. Strong safety Ed Reed, who isn't known as much nationally as he should be, is one of the NFL's best middle-field defenders. Although he has a big-play mentality, Reed still plays enough "by the book" that he won't often be out of position. He has seven pickoffs and 19 passes defensed in '03, but is also effective coming down into the box and helping to suffocate the run. Free safety Will Demps is a tough hitter but, in truth, might not have as much range as Reed does. It's McAlister, though, who makes this secondary special. He may be, given his combination of size and shut-down skills, the best cornerback in the league. There are rumblings that, because of some off-field problems, management is reluctant to invest too much in a long-term contract. Fair enough, assuming the Ravens have some concerns, but they need him to win.
5. No matter how much Kyle Boller ratchets up his game in his second season as the starting quarterback, the Ravens have got to starting getting consistent playmaking from their outside receivers. This is, after all, a team on which tight end Todd Heap has been the leading pass-catcher each of the last two years. Heap is superb, not quite in a class with Tony Gonzalez, but still in a pretty elite subset. He isn't enough, though, to carry the passing game. The trade for Kevin Johnson during the draft was a nice move. But "KJ," while arguably having the NFL's best hands, is not a deep threat. Travis Taylor, who can get vertical, loses focus, as evidenced by 11 dropped passes in 2003. Ron Johnson does not appear to be the answer. One player who might help in time is rookie Devard Darling, a third-round pick the Ravens traded up to get, but he is still pretty raw. There was a reason that the Ravens ranked dead last statistically in passing last season, and it went beyond just the play of the quarterbacks. Someone has to step up at the wideout spots, starting bailing the quarterbacks out on occasion, and author some game-altering plays.
Senior writer Len Pasquarelli covers the NFL for ESPN.com.