GOOD NEWS forRavens fans: The offense is tired of getting sand kicked in its face. At leastthat's what linebacker Ray Lewis noticed during a scrimmage in training camp,when he dropped a few intimidating sound bites on rookie quarterback Joe Flaccowhile the kid shouted signals. In return Flacco, the team's first-round draftpick out of Division I-AA Delaware, shot Lewis a what-me-worry stare and ranthe play—and completed the pass. "I like the kid," Lewis says."Smart, humble, confident. He doesn't back down."
In nine yearsunder former coach Brian Billick, the defense routinely overpowered the offensein camp, crowed about it, then outperformed the offense during the season.Considering that Billick was originally hired for his offensive know-how, theconstant smackdown was perplexing. New coordinator Cam Cameron, backed byfirst-year coach John Harbaugh, came to town with a chip on his shoulder, andit showed during spring and summer workouts. But make no mistake: Defense isstill king. "These are the most physically demanding practices I've everbeen a part of in my 25 years of coaching," Cameron says. "We want toplay offense the way they play defense—smart, physical, aggressive."
It's probably agood thing that so many of the key offensive components—Cameron, Flacco,second-year quarterback Troy Smith, second-year left tackle Jared Gaither,rookie running back Ray Rice—all have been Ravens for 17 months or less. Theyhaven't been immersed in the defense-is-God mentality that pervades thefranchise. Harbaugh has done his part, preaching unit equality and rearranginglockers so that the defensive players aren't separated from their offensivebrethren. But he also knows the offense has to earn respect.
"The phrasethe guys on offense are using is, 'Little brother's not backing downanymore,'" 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 are going topick each other up."
During camp thecoaches increased the tempo. In every offense-versus-defense drill, Cameron hadthe play clock running, and during one 10-play drive led by Smith every snapcame with at least 10 seconds left on the clock. "We want to pressure thedefense," Flacco says. The only way to do that is by moving the chains, andto do that Smith and Flacco have to be more accurate than their predecessors.Under Billick the Ravens ranked in the top 10 in the league in completionpercentage only once. "It's all about recognizing the defense and beingfast at this level," says Flacco. "I need to make decisions quicker,which is 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're going to trainthem to play fast so it doesn't."
The foundation ofthe new offense is a renewed emphasis on the run—at the least, rushing on morethan 43% of the snaps as Baltimore did last year in going 5--11. Willis McGaheemay match his 294 carries of 2007, but this season he'll get help from a No. 2back. Rice, a second-round pick who had 715 carries over his last two seasonsat Rutgers, could be on the field 50% of the time in single- and two-backformations. "At the tempo we're going to play," says Cameron,"you've got to have two good backs stay fresh. Ray's so much better than wethought on draft day. His route running, his hands, his pass protection allcomplement his running."
The only wayBaltimore contends for a playoff spot is if McGahee and Rice can carry theoffense until one of the young quarterbacks gets settled and, of course, thedefense remains formidable.
PROJECTEDSTARTING LINEUP WITH 2007 STATISTICS COACH JOHN HARBAUGH (0--0 in NFL), firstseason with Ravens
2007 RECORD 5--11NFL RANK (Rush/Pass/Total): OFFENSE 16/23/22 DEFENSE 2/20/6
14 at Houston
29 at Pittsburgh (M)
12 at Indianapolis
19 at Miami
2 at Cleveland
16 at N.Y. Giants
30 at Cincinnati
20 at Dallas (Sa)
(M) Monday (Sa) Saturday
NFL Rank: 4
Opponents' 2007 winning percentage: .551
Games against playoff teams: 8
SI.com's NFL personnel expert Michael Lombardievaluates the Ravens' units.
Looking for rookie Joe Flacco to emerge; it won't be this year.
Rookie Ray Rice offers some relief for McGahee.
Lack depth, big-time playmakers; Clayton had no TDs in '07.
Heap is always getting hurt; unit needs a blocker, more depth.
Lost Ogden on the left; never replaced Tony Pashos on the right.
Aging but powerful, and balanced between run D and pass rush.
As a group, can cover the field and rush the passer.
Two corners over 30; newcomer Fabian Washington is the key.
Stover is reliable but short-legged; coverage teams improving.
When you replace Jonathan Ogden, who retired and islikely bound for Canton, you're going to be under the gun. The 6'9",330-pound Gaither, a second-year player, shows quick feet and forces passrushers to take a wide route to the QB. Says offensive coordinator Cam Cameron,"I like his mental toughness, his calmness under pressure."
NOW AT SI.COM
EXCERPTED FROM SI
November 13, 2006
LEWIS'S REVAMPED faith, like the man himself, is araw, loud, electric thing, a muscular mix of the sacred and the profane. Everygame day, just before another 60 minutes' worth of NFL hype and violence, Lewiswill dip his fingers in consecrated oil, seek out a half dozen of his fellowdefenders and trace a cross on each of their foreheads.
Free access to all RAVENS stories and photographs from the SI archives, plusvideo clips.
ED WOLFSTEIN/ICON SMI
GROUND STRIKE McGahee is the foundation of an attack that will be more run-oriented.
JOHN C. MIDDLEBROOK/CAL SPORT MEDIA
MICHAEL O'NEILL (COVER)