Ravens' leadership needs begin on defensive side

December 23, 1996|By John Eisenberg

In one sense, the Ravens' 12th loss of 1996 was different from most of the others. This time, they didn't blow a lead.

Yesterday's 24-21 loss to the Oilers was much like the 11 defeats that preceded it, however, in that it was mostly a story about the Ravens' poor defense.

The Oilers controlled the ball for 36 of the game's 60 minutes, with second-year quarterback Steve McNair completing 19 of 24 passes in just his sixth pro start.

"We just couldn't stop them," Ravens coach Ted Marchibroda said.

This was not a surprise.

The Ravens' opponents completed an astounding 65 percent of their passes this season.

Only the Jets and Falcons allowed more points.

Not coincidentally, they were two of only three teams who lost more games.

As the Ravens players left the field to a pleasant ovation at the end of their first season in Baltimore, it was impossible not to wonder how many members of the defense would return next season.

"We need a few more players" on defense, Marchibroda said. Although he insisted that injuries ruined what could have been a decent defense, look for numerous changes.

The two safeties, Eric Turner and Stevon Moore, were supposed to be the cornerstones of the defense. Neither had an outstanding season.

"They didn't play like Pro Bowlers," Marchibroda said, "although our lack of a consistent [pass] rush didn't help them or anyone in the secondary."

Turner was the team's highest-paid player this season ($3.3 million), and Moore is an unrestricted free agent looking to earn at least $1 million a season. At least one of them won't be back at those prices.

The Ravens have designat ed Turner their "franchise player," but they would save $3 million against the salary cap in 1997 if they cut him by March 1. They'll think about it, for sure.

A player who will be back, in a mild surprise, is left cornerback Antonio Langham. He was beaten so often early in the season that it appeared his days with the team were numbered, but he improved considerably in November and December.

Marchibroda had a private talk with him after the game yesterday, counseling him on how to handle the off-season and come back as a leader.

"He finished strong," Marchibroda said. "I look forward to what he can do next year."

The other cornerback position was problematic all season. Issac Booth began the season as the starter, but he lost his starting job and then was cut after missing a practice. Donny Brady, DeRon Jenkins and Dorian Brew filled in. None stood out.

The position seems like a major hole, although Marchibroda isn't ready to give up on Jenkins, for whom the Ravens traded up to select in the second round of the draft last spring.

"I have faith in Jenkins beyond how he played this season," Marchibroda said. "You have to have patience with young cornerbacks. He's a bright kid. He knows what he did wrong this year. He could be a lot better with a year under his belt."

That's the sound of a veteran coach telling a talented rookie to grow up. Now.

If Jenkins isn't the answer, the Ravens need to find someone to play that position capably or their effort to rebuild the defense will fail. The heart of any solid defense is two tough cornerbacks. Not one, two.

What the defense needs most of all, of course, is a pass rush.

"We need to get to the passer whether it comes from the defensive end or a linebacker," Marchibroda said.

The Ravens simply didn't get enough pressure or overall production from their linebackers, period. Ray Lewis survived as a rookie in the middle, but the team tried to fill in the other spots inexpensively with Mike Croel, Mike Caldwell, Keith Goganious and Jerrol Williams, and they got what they paid for. Caldwell, who played well when he wasn't injured, is a free agent who could return.

In the line, the pass rush was doomed when end Rob Burnett was lost for the season. He had led the team in sacks since 1992. His return should help. "He gives us a lot," Marchibroda said.

Anthony Pleasant, the other end, played hard on a sore ankle all season, but he is an unrestricted free agent who has made noise about leaving. The Ravens could do worse. "Pleasant played a little stronger" as the season progressed, Marchibroda said.

Obviously, defensive players will be the focus of the Ravens' draft and free agency plans. It's impossible to know yet what will happen, but the fourth pick in the draft is a nice poker chip.

The Ravens have made noise about trading the pick to free up some money for free agents. That would be a mistake. They could draft a major star with a pick that high. They need more of those young building blocks.

Ray Lewis is one. He made his share of mistakes this season, but that was expected of a rookie in such a demanding position. He should get stronger in the off-season and begin to assert himself as a leader.

"He has real leadership qualities," Marchibroda said. "It's hard to be a leader as a rookie."

Lewis said yesterday, "You'll see it [leadership] more in the future."

It's what the Ravens need on defense. A change in leadership. A change in personnel.

A change, period.

Pub Date: 12/23/96

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