THE BELIEF Thearrival of Steve McNair makes the Baltimore offense worthy-at last-of sharing alocker room with the vaunted defense, which will be overpowering with thereturn of Ray Lewis from a torn hamstring.
THE REALITYMcNair, who wasn't acquired from the Titans until June, has a lot of work to doin a short time. The Ravens' running-back- and tight-end-oriented offense haslittle in common with Tennessee's more wide-open attack, and the 12-yearveteran says he is taking more reps than he ever has in training camp to getacclimated. His new teammates, however, have already noticed a difference inoffensive efficiency. After watching Baltimore quarterbacks throw an AFC-high21 interceptions last year, safety Ed Reed is impressed by some of the passesMcNair hasn't thrown. "He said he was going to manage the game, give thedefense a rest and not turn the ball over," Reed says, "and he'sdefinitely doing what he said he was going to do."
Here's all youneed to know about the Ravens' passing attack last season: Starting wideoutsMark Clayton and Derrick Mason scored three touchdowns each-the same numberthat linebacker-defensive end Adalius Thomas had. That, of course, is whatBaltimore fans came to expect over the last four seasons, when the team rankedno higher than 22nd in the NFL in passing. And, that, of course, was why theRavens, tired of waiting for 2003 first-round pick Kyle Boller to develop,traded a fourth-rounder for McNair, who was locked in an ugly contract disputewith the Titans. "When the offense scores, [the opposing D] has to play youhonestly," says Thomas. "They have to take chances. They can't wait onthe offense to make a mistake."
Even with theaddition of McNair, the offense still begins with the run and Jamal Lewis, whomust get back to the form that made him the NFL's Offensive Player of the Yearin 2003. Last season, coming off ankle surgery and a four-month stay in federalprison after pleading guilty to a drug conspiracy charge, the 27-year-old Lewisgained only 3.4 yards per carry-the worst rate of his career by nearly ayard.
There's even alittle different look to the defense, after three starters left as free agents:safety Will Demps (Giants), tackle Maake Kemoeatu (Panthers) and end AnthonyWeaver (Texans). Dawan Landry, a fifth-round pick from Georgia Tech, will fillthe hole at safety; Kemoeatu's spot will be occupied by first-rounder HalotiNgata (Oregon); and four-time Pro Bowl pick Trevor Pryce, a free agent signedto a five-year, $25 million deal, is the new end. G.M. Ozzie Newsome hopesPryce follows in the mold of Tony Siragusa, Rod Woodson and Shannon Sharpe,veteran pickups who gave Baltimore a couple of quality seasons toward the endof their careers.
The return of twoformer NFL defensive players of the year, Lewis and Reed, both of whom missedthe second half of 2005 with injuries, makes the defense whole again. Lewis hasshown his old spark in training camp. "People are saying that he's not oneof the best players in the league anymore," says Newsome, "and I thinkhe's back to prove that he is."
With all the bignames on this roster, it's easy to imagine the Ravens making a dark-horse runto the Super Bowl. But taking into consideration the ages of many of thosestars, plus the uncertainty of whether they can rebound from injuries andoff-seasons, it's hard to figure that Baltimore will leapfrog Pittsburgh.
10 at TampaBay
1 SAN DIEGO
9 at Denver(M)
29 at NewOrleans
30 at Cincinnati(T)
10 at KansasCity
(M) Monday (T)Thursday
NFL rank T8
Opponents' 2005winning percentage .523
Games againstplayoff teams 7
AN OPPOSINGTEAM'S SCOUT SIZES UP THE RAVENS
> SteveMcNair's good when he's got a sound running game, but carrying the load as apasser hasn't been his history.
> Re-signinglinebacker Bart Scott was a good move. He's an emerging player. At $13.5million for three years, he's a good value.
> I likefirst-round pick Haloti Ngata. He's exactly what they need, a big guy(6'4", 340) at defensive tackle. With their style of defense, he's going tobe effective.
> They needtheir receivers to step up. They got great value in the fourth round inDemetrius Williams.
> I likesafety Ed Reed's instincts, playmaking ability and passion for the game. Heseems to arrive in big games and make the people around him better.
Even when he wason the field, Ray Lewis didn't earn his contract last year. We'll see if hecomes back this season.
At the point inthe season when most rookies hit the wall, 2005 first-rounder Mark Clayton tookoff: 24 of his 44 catches and all three of his TDs came in the last five games.Now coordinator Jim Fassel is emphasizing yardage gained after the catch, totake advantage of Steve McNair's precise passing. That thinking plays into thespeedy Clayton's skills. Says coach Brian Billick, "We need to get the ballin his hands in as many ways as we can."
COACH BRIANBILLICK (62-50 in NFL), eighth season with Baltimore
STEVE MCNAIR --NEW ACQUISITION
TREVOR PRYCE --NEW ACQUISITION
HALOTI NGATA (R)-- NEW ACQUISITION
SAM KOCH (R) --NEW ACQUISITION
DAWAN LANDRY (R)-- NEW ACQUISITION
(R) Rookie (college statistics)
2005 RECORD 6-10NFL RANK (RUSH/PASS/TOTAL) OFFENSE 21/22/24 DEFENSE 9/8/5
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SIMON BRUTY (JAMAL LEWIS)
GIVING GROUNDJamal Lewis's average gain per carry fell from 5.3 to 3.4 in two years, bad news for run-first Baltimore.
HELMET PHOTO BY DAVID N. BERKWITZ