> For thefirst time since 2001 Jamal Lewis will not be the team's primary ballcarrier.The Ravens cut ties with Lewis on the last day of February and eight days latersent three draft picks to the Bills for Willis McGahee, who they hope will bemore explosive and creative than the north-south Lewis. Quarterback SteveMcNair, 34, who signed late and had to learn on the job in 2006, now has a fullseason behind him of running the Baltimore offense.
Coach BrianBillick, who fired his offensive coordinator (and close friend) Jim Fassel inmid-October and assumed the play-calling duties, will run the show from DayOne. "The defense wants us to be more productive and aggressive onoffense," says Billick. "That's the goal."
That defense,which was ranked first in the NFL, will have to adapt to life withoutlinebacker Adalius Thomas, who took his uncommon play-making ability to NewEngland as a $35¬†million unrestricted free agent.
> The Ravens'defense is in the midst of a run of historic proportions. It gave up just264.1¬†yards a game last year, the best in the NFL by an astounding 19.5yards, and it hasn't allowed more than 20 points per game since 2002. Thomas'sdeparture created headlines, but every other significant defender on the teamreturns. "We keep it moving around here," says veteran middlelinebacker and team leader Ray Lewis. "We feel real good about the defense,even without AD."
Thomas was listedas an outside linebacker in the Ravens' 3-4 system, but he functioned atvarious times as an edge pass rusher, a curl-zone pass defender or even a deepsafety. Jarret Johnson, a 6' 3", 270-pound run-stopping specialist, willhelp fill the void left by Thomas's departure, as will safety Gerome Sapp. Moreimportant, Lewis (even at age 32), the improving Bart Scott and sack specialistTerrell Suggs are as good as any other linebacking corps in the league. Therest of the Ravens' defense is dotted with All-Pros present and future: tackleHaloti Ngata, safety Ed Reed and cornerbacks Chris McAlister and SamariRolle.
"There aretimes in the last few years when we've had to play without Ray, without Ed,without a lot of people," says defensive coordinator Rex Ryan. "Wewon't ask anybody to do the things AD did, but we'll get those things done witha number of people. You look around here: If you make our defense, you're apretty darn good defensive player. And we will play good defense."
The goal onoffense is to take some of the pressure off that defense. Last season theRavens started 2-0, averaging 27.5¬†points a game, but then scored only55¬†points over the next four weeks, leading Billick to take over theoffense after two straight losses. With him calling the shots, the Ravens went9-1, and they ranked ninth in scoring in the NFL in that span as McNair'squarterback rating improved from 64.1 under Fassel to 92.9 under Billick.
"You've got togive the man credit for taking a stand," says McNair. "Brian decided ifhe was going to get fired, he was going to go down calling his own plays. Hewas using the same playbook as Fassel, but he was more aggressive. He went forbig plays. He stepped things up. He wanted to make runs look like passes andpasses look like runs. I think we did a pretty good job."
With an entireoff-season to prepare for running the offense, Billick says to expect more ofthe same, only better. And he's relishing a more hands-on role. "Now when Iwake up in the middle of the night," he says, "I'm thinking aboutwhether I should put the fullback in the flat, not about our salary-capsituation."
He is alsothinking about how to use McGahee to further enliven the offense. "WithJamal we had a lot of success, but we were a fairly downhill team," saysBillick. "We played a physical game and wore you out. Now I think we'veevolved. We're more multiple. And Willis has the ability to get outside andcut, which we have not had."
McGahee, the Miamiproduct whose horrific knee injury in the 2003 Fiesta Bowl delayed the start ofhis NFL career by a full year, gained 3,365 yards in three seasons with theBills but only 990 in 2006. The team and the player were sick of each other."I left everything in Buffalo behind me," says McGahee. "I've goteverything back on the right track. This place is loaded with talent. Itreminds me of Miami, man. I plan on having some great years here."
His first yearshould be one of those. The Ravens are in an elite class and will be in seriouscontention for the AFC's tightly contested Super Bowl berth.
COACH BRIANBILLICK (75-53 in NFL), ninth season with Ravens
WILLIS MCGAHEE(NEW ACQUISITION)
TD 750 2
HT 6' 8"
HT 6' 3"
HT 6' 3"
HT 6' 3"
HT 6' 9"
SACKS 9 1/2
SACKS 3 1/2
SACKS 1 1/2
SACKS 9 1/2
> 2006 RECORD13-3 NFL RANK (Rush/Pass/Total): OFFENSE 25/11/17 DEFENSE 2/6/1
10 at Cincinnati (M)
16 N.Y. JETS
30 at Cleveland
7 at San Francisco
14 ST. LOUIS
21 at Buffalo
5 at Pittsburgh (M)
25 at San Diego
3 NEW ENGLAND (M)
16 at Miami
23 at Seattle
NFL rank ... 11T
Opponents' 2006 winning percentage ... .508
Games against playoff teams ... 5
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AN OPPOSING TEAM'S SCOUT SIZES UP THE RAVENS
> Look at their defense--it's a Pro Bowl defenseall by itself. . . . They lost Adalius Thomas, and he's a good player, but Ithink he was a little overrated. He was surrounded by guys like Ray Lewis andTerrell Suggs and Bart Scott, so that allowed him to freelance and make a namefor himself. He couldn't have played that way on any other team. They won'tmiss a beat without him. . . . On offense Steve McNair is on the downside ofhis career, but he's still better than a lot of guys. You compare Baltimorewith Jacksonville: They both have great defenses, but Jacksonville has ByronLeftwich and Baltimore has McNair. And McNair is a lot better. . . . I thinkWillis McGahee is kind of brittle. I don't know if he's the guy who gets you tothe Super Bowl or not. But they'll be close either way.
THE KING 500
At 6' 1", 206 pounds, the three-time Pro Bowlcorner looks more like a hard-hitting safety than one of the NFL's elite covermen. He's started 114 games as a Raven and along with Ray Lewis is one of onlytwo starting defenders left from the 2000 Super Bowl team. He plays now with asense of purpose and history. "We're not just trying to be the best defensethis year," he says. "We're trying to be the best defense in thehistory of the game."
McNair & Co. will benefit from running the same offense from theget-go.