Rose-colored glasses help see into the future Second-half surge could put team into hunt for playoffs

November 03, 1996|By Mike Preston | Mike Preston,SUN STAFF

Ravens vice president Ozzie Newsome and coach Ted Marchibroda are as disappointed with the team's 3-5 record midway through the season as the players and fans are.

They offer few excuses, just optimism.

"I think our record is not as good as we had hoped at this point, but we've had a lot of injuries on defense," Marchibroda said. "But we're now at the point in the schedule where we have to make a big push. We've stronger now than what we have been."

Newsome added: "I think this team has demonstrated the ability not to quit. That's the first step toward winning. They're at the point where they consistently play hard."

Whether playing hard is enough to win games and get into the playoffs remains to be seen, but the Ravens are a better team in the past four games than they were in the first quarter of the season.

Players on offense, led by quarterback Vinny Testaverde, believe the unit is invincible, paced by a no-huddle attack that has spat out 130 points in the past four games.

But as fast as the offense is scoring, the defense is allowing yardage and points (134) in big numbers during the past month. Only the New York Jets (233) have given up more points than the Ravens (232) this season, and the Jets have played one more game.

Still, the Ravens are putting on a happy face. Remember, this is the NFL, where on any given Sunday one team can play as poorly as the other.

"A team used to be judged on where they finished at the end of the season and their schedule the following year," said Marchibroda. "Not anymore. The salary cap has changed all of that.

"I have told our players that there are teams that have started strong, like San Diego and Miami, who no longer look invincible and teams like the Raiders, who started off slowly, are starting to come on. We have to be one of those teams that are starting to come on."

The Ravens' second-half schedule provides for such a streak. The Ravens have two games remaining with Cincinnati (2-2) and Jacksonville (3-6) and one each with Pittsburgh (6-2) and Houston (5-3), all in the AFC Central. The Ravens also will face Carolina (5-3) and San Francisco (6-2).

"We've got our division games coming up," Newsome said. "Those games determine your success and playoff chances."

If the Ravens are to have some success, they must play respectable defense. In three of the past four games, it has been horrendous. Why?

Start with injuries. Of the 11 players who are starting on defense today against the Bengals, four have missed substantial playing time -- defensive ends Mike Frederick (knee) and Anthony Pleasant (ankle), inside linebacker Mike Caldwell (knee) and safety Eric Turner (ankle).

Two other starters, end Rob Burnett (knee) and tackle Dan Footman (fractured forearm), were lost for the season Oct. 13 against the Indianapolis Colts.

The Ravens' first loss, though, occurred before the first game when starting defensive tackle Larry Webster was suspended for the season for violating the NFL policy on substance abuse.

"Most of the injuries were on defense and it forced us to press some guys into action," said Marchibroda. "I think the injuries have made a big difference."

Injuries forced the team to convert from a 4-3 defense to a 3-4 two weeks ago, but there is more to the problems than injuries. Outside linebackers Jerrol Williams and Mike Croel have not played up to par, and rookie middle linebacker Ray Lewis has had the ups and downs of a rookie.

Then there is the secondary, which doesn't have a cover guy who can take out the other team's top wide receivers.

First-year cornerback Donny Brady has progressed, but fellow cornerbacks Antonio Langham and Issac Booth have been burned regularly on game days.

Rookie cornerback DeRon Jenkins has potential, but needs to be tougher and is still a year away.

Strong safety Stevon Moore has spent two of the past three games trying to cover ground for the cornerbacks while Turner was nursing a sprained ankle.

"We need to be better, but you have to like the way our guys keep fighting and scratching out there," said Marchibroda. "We're missing some parts, but you can't do anything about that."

At times, the Ravens' secondary has been totally out of position.

Newsome said he probably made a mistake when he cut veteran corner Don Griffin in July because of salary cap concerns.

"The young players need a mentor," said Newsome. "Don carried himself on the field and in meetings very well. He would have been a great teacher."

Nothing has slowed the offense. Wide receivers Michael Jackson (42 receptions, 632 yards) and Derrick Alexander (37, 654) have performed beyond expectations, giving the Ravens one of the hottest duos in pro football.

The offensive line has lived up to its reputation as one of the best, and Earnest Byner has carried the running game long enough to hand it over to Bam Morris soon.

Testaverde is a story himself. In the past four games, he has completed 104 of 171 passes for 1,355 yards and 13 touchdowns.

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