Given all the time and energy Art Modell has spent defending
himself in the 19 months since he yanked his team out of
Cleveland and moved to Baltimore, it's no surprise that the
Ravens owner has spent a great deal of money on defense. This
past off-season Modell acted out of necessity, coughing up cash
for two free-agent linemen and a pair of highly drafted
linebackers. Otherwise, the man who moved the Browns might have
become as unpopular in Baltimore as he is in his former home.

Baltimore fans who had stopped paying close attention to
football after the Colts moved to Indianapolis in 1984 must have
been perplexed during the Ravens' first season. Baltimore
surrendered an NFL-high 368.1 yards per game and also finished
at the bottom in pass defense, which tends to happen when a team
is as weak in the secondary as the Ravens were last year.

Baltimore also put up a feeble front in '96. "I wouldn't care if
we had four Deion Sanderses in the secondary," says defensive
end Rob Burnett, an eight-year veteran who missed much of the
'96 season after tearing ligaments in his right knee. "It's
still up to us, the front seven, and last year we were in
disarray." Injuries to Burnett and since-departed lineman Dan
Footman forced defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis to junk a 4-3
alignment after six games and switch to the 3-4 zone blitz he
had helped implement as a Steelers assistant.

So while coach Ted Marchibroda and quarterback Vinny Testaverde
were turning the Ravens into an un-Brownslike offensive
juggernaut--Baltimore scored 371 points, fourth in the AFC--the
defense couldn't stop anybody, especially when it counted most.
The Ravens blew second-half leads in eight of their last 11
games and finished 4-12.

"What a waste," Burnett says. "In Cleveland we never had
anything close to that kind of offensive production. Last year's
offense was a dream come true, and we couldn't support them."

Replacements began arriving soon after the season ended. The
Ravens rebuilt the right side of their defensive line through
free agency, signing run-stopping tackle Tony Siragusa, a
longtime member of the Colts who is coming off knee surgery, and
pass-rushing end Michael McCrary, who emerged as a force for the
Seahawks last season when he had 13 1/2 sacks, tying the Bills'
Bruce Smith for top honors in the AFC. The draft yielded three
prospective starters: outside linebackers Peter Boulware and
Jamie Sharper, and free safety Kim Herring. Throw in tackle
James Jones and a healthy Burnett, a Pro Bowl performer in '94,
and Marchibroda has cause for optimism.

"Abilitywise, our front four can compare with anybody in the
league," Marchibroda says. "The linebackers are a talented
group. We're hoping their ability can overcome their
inexperience."

It will take time, of course. "Going from high school to college
is a jump," Siragusa says. "Going from college to the pros is a
pole vault." This bunch will have to learn on the fly. Middle
linebacker Ray Lewis, the senior member of the group, had a
team-leading 142 tackles as a rookie last season. It will be
especially tough for Boulware, the fourth pick in the draft. His
negotiations dragged on until mid-August, and he was the final
'97 draftee to come to terms, signing a six-year, $18.5 million
deal on Aug. 18.

The Ravens are praying that Boulware, who led the nation with 19
sacks while playing end for Florida State last season, can make
a quick transition to linebacker. But if Boulware and the rest
of the front seven don't produce, 1997 might start looking a lot
like last season.

--M.S.

COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYER With solid off-season additions like Siragusa and Herring (20), the Ravens may finally be able to get a handle on their defensive problems. [Tony Siragusa and Kim Herring tackling New York Jets player]

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