4 Baltimore Ravens Improved play in the secondary is of primary importance for a team that regularly ranks near the bottom of the league in pass defense

August 29, 1999

The Ravens are entering only their fourth season, but
Baltimore's veterans are old pros when it comes to training camp
rituals. When the geezers tap their glasses during lunch or
dinner, rookies must rise and sing either their alma mater's
fight song or a tune off the radio. First-year players can
occasionally find their clothes--or themselves--in the team's
ice tubs. They must run errands and take veterans out to dinner.
The most notable victims in the last two years have been
cornerbacks Duane Starks and Chris McAlister, the Ravens'
first-round draft picks in 1998 and '99, respectively. As the
final part of their initiation, both players also have had to
carry teammates' bags during camp.

This year Baltimore may be asking Starks and McAlister to tote
more than bags. In 1998 the Ravens finished 24th in the league in
pass defense. Baltimore gave up 19 passes of 30 yards or more,
including spirit-breaking touchdowns of 67, 72 and 78 yards. "Big
plays create such a momentum swing, they are almost impossible to
overcome," says defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis. "This was
definitely an area of concern, but I think we've made a great
improvement."

The pressure to contain the opponent's passing has only
intensified since Brian Billick was hired as coach last January.
Billick, formerly the Vikings' offensive coordinator, brought
his complex attack with him, and until the Ravens master the
system, their defense must keep Baltimore in games. One day
Starks and McAlister could be the league's best cornerback
tandem, but the Ravens need them to play at close to that level
right now. "We are going to be good in the secondary," says
13-year veteran Rod Woodson, who will move from cornerback to
free safety this season. "The question is, Can we get good fast?
We have to, or it's going to be a season of long, long Sundays."

Which is exactly what life has been like for Baltimore fans
since Art Modell moved the franchise from Cleveland after the
1995 season. The Ravens have won only 16 games, and poor play in
the secondary--Baltimore ranked 30th and 28th in pass defense in
1996 and '97, respectively--has been largely to blame; in fact,
since the move the Ravens have started five players at right
corner.

Woodson, a member of the NFL's 75th-anniversary team at
cornerback, will play free safety for the first time since his
senior year at Purdue, in 1986. "I always thought I was a
natural safety," he says. "It's the position I started playing
when I was nine. I had to work hard and study to be a corner.
Safety comes natural."

Paired with third-year strong safety Kim Herring, Woodson will
use his superb field vision to freelance a bit more in the zone
coverages that Lewis likes to employ behind blitz packages. Part
of Woodson's responsibilities involve working with Starks and
McAlister, who should be starting by October. Last year Starks
started the last eight games, finishing with 19 passes defensed
and tied with Raiders cornerback Charles Woodson for the rookie
interception lead, with five. Late in the season, however,
several quarterbacks exploited Starks's aggressiveness by
getting him to bite on double moves and pump fakes. "There's no
worse feeling in football than standing there by yourself,
praying the quarterback overthrows your man," says Starks. Adds
Lewis, the only holdover from former coach Ted Marchibroda's
staff, "Yeah, Duane took his lumps last year. He had some great
weeks and some not-so-great weeks. But he learned from it, and
we can see the results."

The Ravens already like what they see in the physical McAlister.
The son of former Eagles and Patriots running back James
McAlister, Chris was a consensus All-America at Arizona. Last
year he became only the seventh player in college football
history to return a punt, a kickoff and an interception for a
touchdown in the same season. Selected with the 10th pick in the
draft, he was the fifth-highest-rated player on Baltimore's
board. "Mac has been better than anyone thought he would be,"
says Lewis. "That kid has quite a bit of moxie."

The 6'1", 206-pound McAlister has the speed to cover wideouts
and the strength to confront the AFC Central's big backs.
Equally important, he already understands his role on a defense
that features Pro Bowl players such as linebackers Ray Lewis and
Peter Boulware and defensive end Michael McCrary. "All we need
to do is hold up our men so that the quarterback has to reload
and switch reads just once," says McAlister. "By then the
pressure should land. You've seen our linebackers. When we shut
people down and they get a chance to hit quarterbacks, oh, man,
everything in the world just seems to stop."

Everything, the Ravens hope, including the losing.

--D.F.

COLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATO Cornered Starks, who had his good days and bad days as a rookie in 1998, must be more consistent if the Ravens are to make strides.
COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS

SCHEDULE

Sept. 12 at St. Louis
19 PITTSBURGH
26 CLEVELAND
Oct. 3 at Atlanta
10 at Tennessee
17 Open date
21 KANSAS CITY (Thurs.)
31 BUFFALO
Nov. 7 at Cleveland
14 at Jacksonville
21 at Cincinnati
28 JACKSONVILLE
Dec. 5 TENNESSEE
12 at Pittsburgh
19 NEW ORLEANS
26 CINCINNATI
Jan. 2 at New England

FAST FACTS

1998 Record 6-10 (4th in AFC Central)
NFL rank (rush/pass/total): offense 20/25/26; defense 17/24/22

1999 Schedule strength NFL rank: 17 (tie) Opponents' 1998
winning percentage: .496 Games against playoff teams: 5

DOUBLE DUTY

When Priest Holmes led the Ravens in both rushing yards and
receptions last year, it marked only the fifth time since 1936
(the year of the inaugural NFL draft) that an undrafted player
had led an NFL team in both of those categories in one season.
Unfortunately for the Ravens, they, like the other four teams
with such a player, finished well below the .500 mark.

Player, team Season W-L Games Rushing Receptions
yards

Priest Holmes, Ravens 1998 6-10 16 1,008 43
John Settle, Falcons 1988 5-11 16 1,024 68
Clark Gaines, Jets 1977 3-11 14 595 55
Clark Gaines Jets 1976 3-11 14 724 41
Bob Davis, Boston Yanks 1944 2-8 10 363 19

PLAYER TO WATCH

How's this for explosiveness? Last season wideout and return man
Jermaine Lewis scored on receptions of 46,56, 58, 64 and 76
yards and on punt returns of 69 and 87 yards. Lewis and Packers
wideout Antonio Freeman shared the league lead in touchdowns of
50-plus yards, with six--the most since the Oilers' Billy (White
Shoes) Johnson scored six times from his own territory in 1977.
Lewis, a 1996 fifth-round pick from Maryland, also averaged a
Ravens-record 19.1 yards per catch. New coach Brian Billick
considers the 5'7" Lewis, a special teams pick for the 1999 Pro
Bowl, so vital to the offense that he has vowed to reduce his
role on special teams.

PROJECTED LINEUP WITH 1998 STATISTICS

Coach: Brian Billick
First season with Ravens (0-0 in NFL)

Offensive Backs PVR*

QB Scott Mitchell[1] 137
75 att. 38 comp. 50.7% 452 yds. 1 TD 3 int. 57.2 rtg.

RB Priest Holmes 63
233 att. 1,008 yds. 4.3 avg. 43 rec. 260 yds. 6.0 avg. 7 TDs

RB Errict Rhett 285
44 att. 180 yds. 4.1 avg. 11 rec. 65 yds. 5.9 avg. 0 TDs

FB Charles Evans[1] 302
23 att. 67 yds. 2.9 avg. 12 rec. 84 yds. 7.0 avg. 1 TD

Receivers, Specialists, Offensive Linemen
[PVR]
WR Jermaine Lewis 72 41 rec. 784 yds. 6 TDs
WR Qadry Ismail[1] 159 0 rec. 0 yds. 0 TDs
WR Patrick Johnson 202 12 rec. 159 yds. 1 TD
TE Lovett Purnell[1] 226 12 rec. 92 yds. 2 TDs
K Matt Stover 165 24/24 XPs 21/28 FGs 87 pts.
PR Jermaine Lewis 72 32 ret. 12.7 avg. 2 TDs
KR Corey Harris 342 35 ret. 27.6 avg. 1 TD
LT Jonathan Ogden 6'8" 335 lbs. 13 games 13 starts
LG James Atkins 6'6" 306 lbs. 9 games 6 starts
C Jeff Mitchell 6'4" 300 lbs. 11 games 10 starts
RG Jeff Blackshear 6'6" 323 lbs. 16 games 16 starts
RT Harry Swayne[1] 6'5" 295 lbs. 16 games 16 starts

Defense

LE Rob Burnett 49 tackles 2 1/2 sacks
LT Larry Webster 9 tackles 0 sacks
RT Tony Siragusa 41 tackles 0 sacks
RE Michael McCrary 72 tackles 14 1/2 sacks
OLB Peter Boulware 61 tackles 8 1/2 sacks
MLB Ray Lewis 120 tackles 3 sacks
OLB Jamie Sharper 54 tackles 1 sack
CB Duane Starks 53 tackles 5 int.
SS Kim Herring 27 tackles 0 int.
FS Rod Woodson 88 tackles 6 int.
CB Chris McAlister (R)[1]34 tackles 5 int.
P Kyle Richardson 90 punts 43.9 avg.

[1]New acquisition (R) Rookie (statistics for final college
year) *PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 122)

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)