Ravens make right turn with Marchibroda

November 14, 1996|By Ken Rosenthal

The Ravens can't play defense. They can't hold double-digit leads. They can't even get a first down in crunch time even with the No. 3 offense in the NFL.

But they've got the right coach, and that's a start.

Even with all their injuries, they're always competitive. And they'll probably be competitive again Sunday in San Francisco, before taking the inevitable fall to 3-8.

The first step was getting them to play hard, changing their mind-sets, making them believe. Ted Marchibroda has accomplished that. The next step is to find him the right players, especially on defense.

"I don't think we have to make any improvements on offense," Marchibroda said yesterday. "We'd be happy to go into 1997 with exactly what we have now."

Why not? No coach has ever gotten as much out of quarterback Vinny Testaverde. Indeed, the offense is performing so well, Marchibroda remains convinced that the team is not far away from playoff contention.

No, the coach hasn't always been ahead of the curve, and his players' effort hasn't always been exemplary -- witness the second half against Cincinnati on both counts.

But remember what this team did in the second half of last season. How it collapsed after the move to Baltimore was announced. How it quit under former coach Bill Belichick.

"Ted had a tough job coming into the year trying to change the attitude," Testaverde said. "And he did it, right from minicamp. He feels positive about what we do and believes in what we do. And we believe in Ted."

The importance of that cannot be underestimated. Oh, the Dallas Cowboys were so good last season, they didn't need to pledge allegiance to Barry Switzer. But for most successful teams, the players need to be with the program.

Look at the 49ers. Players come and go. The system prevails.

San Francisco is still running the same offense Bill Walsh implemented as coach in 1979. George Seifert joined Walsh's staff in 1980, became defensive coordinator in '83, then took over as head coach in '89.

"When you think of the 49ers," Marchibroda said, "you think of continuity."

The Ravens are just the opposite. Marchibroda wasn't hired until after the Browns' move became official in February. And the injuries forced the Ravens to change from a 4-3 defense to a 3-4 in Week 7.

This off-season will be different. The Ravens can worry about football instead of relocation. Their injured players will heal. And Marchibroda said he will adopt a broader vision now that the offense is in place.

It's a little early to ponder the draft, but the Ravens' priority is clear.

"It has to be on defense -- we need a guy to get to the passer," Marchibroda said. "With all our guys healthy, that defensive line is still OK, but the linebackers are still a little bit suspect."

The ideal prospect would be an outside linebacker/defensive end type like Arizona rookie Simeon Rice. Marchibroda envisions Ray Lewis remaining an inside linebacker, and Mike Caldwell returning on the outside. The Ravens likely will try to replace their other outside linebacker, Mike Croel.

"We need to have someone on defense that can make a play," said vice president of player personnel Ozzie Newsome. "If you get a big-time defensive lineman or a big-time outside linebacker, you probably can play with a lesser secondary. If a quarterback can't throw it, he can't complete anything."

Still, Newsome was watching films of a college cornerback yesterday, because the Ravens want to upgrade at that position, too. They'll need to draft well, manage the salary cap effectively and sign the right free agents. In recent years, they've rarely succeeded at all three.

The big question is, is the defensive line as good as Marchibroda thinks? It didn't play all that well early in the season, when most of its starters were healthy. Then again, Marchibroda said, "I'm not sure we had the attitude at the beginning of the year that we have now."

Belichick programmed the linemen to tie up their opponents up front so that the linebackers could make tackles. Defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis implemented a less conservative scheme in which players shoot the gaps, and athletes make plays.

It took time for the linemen to warm to the new approach, and then the injuries disrupted everything. Newsome is convinced defensive end Rob Burnett could have made a big stop in the fourth quarter against Cincinnati or Jacksonville. But Burnett, a Pro Bowl player in 1994, likely is out for the season.

The return of suspended defensive tackle Larry Webster next season would help -- he's bigger than Tim Goad, and would keep offensive linemen from blocking Lewis. An improved pass rush also would enable safeties Eric Turner and Stevon Moore to stop playing so cautiously and start making big plays.

The Ravens aren't close to a Super Bowl, and their salary-cap problems might prevent them from making rapid improvement. But Marchibroda worked his magic in Indianapolis, and who's to say it can't happen again? Newsome raves about his experience, his optimism and, most of all, his patience.

He's the right coach.

Just find him the right players.

Pub Date: 11/14/96

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