August 27, 2008
SI's 2008 NFL Scouting Reports
Baltimore Ravens
Projected Finish: 3rd in AFC North
McGahee is the foundation of an attack that will be more run-oriented.
Ed Wolfstein/Icon SMI
2008 Schedule

A beleaguered offense turns to young players for salvation, picking up the tempo and looking the defense in the eye.

Good news for Ravens fans: The offense is tired of getting sand kicked in itsface. At least that's what linebacker Ray Lewis noticed during a scrimmage intraining camp, when he dropped a few intimidating sound bites on rookiequarterback Joe Flacco while the kid shouted signals. In return Flacco, theteam's first-round draft pick out of Division I-AA Delaware, shot Lewis awhat-me-worry stare and ran the play -- and completed the pass. "I like the kid,"Lewis says. "Smart, humble, confident. He doesn't back down."

In nine years under former coach Brian Billick, the defense routinelyoverpowered the offense in camp, crowed about it, then outperformed the offenseduring the season. Considering that Billick was originally hired for hisoffensive know-how, the constant smackdown was perplexing. New coordinator CamCameron, backed by first-year coach John Harbaugh, came to town with a chip onhis shoulder, and it showed during spring and summer workouts. But make nomistake: Defense is still king. "These are the most physically demandingpractices I've ever been a part of in my 25 years of coaching," Cameron says."We want to play offense the way they play defense -- smart, physical,aggressive."

It's probably a good thing that so many of the key offensivecomponents -- Cameron, Flacco, second-year quarterback Troy Smith, second-year lefttackle Jared Gaither, rookie running back Ray Rice -- all have been Ravens for 17months or less. They haven't been immersed in the defense-is-God mentality thatpervades the franchise. Harbaugh has done his part, preaching unit equality andrearranging lockers so that the defensive players aren't separated from theiroffensive brethren. But he also knows the offense has to earnrespect.

"The phrase the guys on offense are using is, 'Little brother's not backingdown anymore,' " Harbaugh says. "It's not about the offense versus thedefense, and we're not going to have any 'We lost this game because of theoffense' grumbling. That's a place to hide, not a solution. At some point we'regoing to be a great offense. I don't know if it's going to be by opening day,Week 3 or Year 3. But until then all three phases of this team aregoing to pick each other up."

During camp the coaches increased the tempo. In every offense-versus-defensedrill, Cameron had the play clock running, and during one 10-play drive led bySmith every snap came with at least 10 seconds left on the clock. "We wantto pressure the defense," Flacco says. The only way to do that is by moving thechains, and to do that Smith and Flacco have to be more accurate than theirpredecessors. Under Billick the Ravens ranked in the top 10 in the leaguein completion percentage only once. "It's all about recognizing the defense andbeing fast at this level," says Flacco. "I need to make decisions quicker, whichis why it's good for us to be playing at such a fast pace."

Says Cameron, "I've seen the play clock strangle young quarterbacks. We'regoing to train them to play fast so it doesn't."

The foundation of the new offense is a renewed emphasis on the run -- at theleast, rushing on more than 43% of the snaps as Baltimore did last year in going5-11. Willis McGahee may match his 294 carries of 2007, but this season he'llget help from a No. 2 back. Rice, a second-round pick who had715 carries over his last two seasons at Rutgers, could be on the field 50%of the time in single- and two-back formations. "At the tempo we're going toplay," says Cameron, "you've got to have two good backs stay fresh. Ray's somuch better than we thought on draft day. His route running, his hands, his passprotection all complement his running."

The only way Baltimore contends for a playoff spot is if McGahee and Rice cancarry the offense until one of the young quarterbacks gets settled and, ofcourse, the defense remains formidable. -- Peter King


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