Promising defense awaits reality check

August 25, 1996|By John Eisenberg

He stood in the middle of the Ravens' cluttered locker room late Friday night, a briefcase in hand and a big performance in mind.

"Your defense sure did look good," someone said to Marvin Lewis, the Ravens' defensive coordinator, after the Ravens had beaten the Bills, 37-14, at Rich Stadium.

Lewis paused, measuring a response.

"We made progress," he finally said.

Progress? The Ravens recorded seven sacks, limited the Bills to 2 yards of offense in the first half and shut them out until early in the fourth quarter.

If that is just "progress," Cal Ripken has played in a few games in a row.

But what did you expect Lewis to say after a preseason game against an opponent that cared not a whit about winning?

Yes, the Ravens' defense was overpowering against the Bills and solid throughout the preseason.

But like all conclusions reached in August, this notion of a formidable Ravens defense remains unconfirmed.

"I hope we're where we want to be," Lewis said. "We'll find out next Sunday."

That's when the Ravens open their regular-season schedule against the Oakland Raiders.

Finally, a game that matters.

The preseason was a hoot and holler after 12 years without a team, but the best part was that it ended.

Fans should have to swallow only so much insignificance at regular-season prices.

The Ravens won three of four games, but it was just fluff; who remembers, or cares, how the Orioles fared in spring training?

To dismiss all 240 minutes as pointless is, however, being a little extreme.

Some things become apparent even in games that don't count.

That the Ravens will rely on Lewis' defense, for instance.

The offense is an uncertainty; Vinny Testaverde is an adventure, and he has neither a top-notch halfback nor a proven game-breaking receiver. Brace yourself.

If the Ravens are going to make any noise, they'll do it with defense and an above-average kicking game.

The first quarter Friday night suggested that the defense just may excel once the real games begin.

The Bills had all their starters on the field except Thurman Thomas. Even Jim Kelly, who doesn't do exhibitions, was out there.

The Ravens stuffed them with a firm running defense, then blew them away with blitzes.

A good offensive line was manhandled.

It doesn't mean a thing unless the Ravens back it up beginning next week, but it surely was impressive.

At this point, the surprise would be if Lewis' defense wasn't relatively stout. It has its weaknesses, but it is sound in most places and exceptional in a few.

"I saw some good defenses when I played in Denver and New York, and this one rates," linebacker Mike Croel said.

If it were a house, its foundation would be the defensive backfield, primarily safeties Eric Turner and Stevon Moore.

Turner is the Ravens' best player, a fleet center fielder mashing all objects in his path. Moore was a Pro Bowl alternate last season.

What does it mean to have such quality back there?

It means that the hole at right cornerback may not hurt quite so badly.

And it means the Ravens can remain in a basic defense even when opponents use more receivers. That means they can blitz more.

"What you want is to build variety in your defense," Lewis said. "Having safeties like that allows you to do different things without getting in trouble."

The defensive linemen aren't as exceptional as the safeties, but they're solid, proven pros. Tim Goad, Anthony Pleasant and Rob Burnett have made 257 NFL starts among them. They know what they're doing.

"A guy like Goad is just a good, strong player who is always in the right spot and gets the job done," Lewis said.

The linebackers are a gamble; Ray Lewis is a rookie, Mike Caldwell has never started a full season and the Giants let Croel go as a free agent.

Lewis is going to have his share of problems as a rookie middle linebacker, but the Ravens have seen enough to expect that they won't miss Pepper Johnson.

"Ray Lewis can play," Turner said.

But the most important, new defensive figure doesn't wear a uniform. Marvin Lewis has brought a different style from Pittsburgh, where he coached the Steelers' linebackers.

At the age of 37, he is a coordinator for the first time in his 16th year in coaching. He spent a decade in the college game before joining the Steelers in 1992.

The Ravens are relying on his defense to carry them.

"We are definitely attacking more than we did in Cleveland," Turner said.

Is it a better defense?

"Completely different," Turner said. "Different terminology, different techniques, different schemes."

Among the last to leave the locker room Friday night, Turner, like Marvin Lewis, was hesitant to make proclamations after the strong preseason.

"We had a good night, a good preseason," he said, "but we're not putting much stock in it. We still have so much to learn. Everything is new. We have 16 games to learn it."

But the potential for a solid defense does exist?

"For sure," Turner said. "We have a lot of guys who can play. But our business is just beginning."

Pub Date: 8/25/96

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