Poised in the pocket Testaverde: The Ravens quarterback isn't committing the same costly mistakes he did last year, and he is becoming more confident with each passing victory.

September 24, 1997|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,SUN STAFF

Quarterback Vinny Testaverde, coming off one of his finer performances in a Baltimore uniform, thought about his vital role in the Ravens' three-game winning streak, then downplayed it by digging up some unpleasant history.

Forget about his brilliance in Sunday's 36-10 dismantling of the Tennessee Oilers. Forget about his three touchdown passes, his pinpoint throws to receivers Michael Jackson, Derrick Alexander and Jermaine Lewis. Forget about his methodical dissection of Tennessee's secondary and its endless parade of blitzes.

Testaverde would rather address the team's season-opening loss to Jacksonville, a loss that was marked by his three interceptions, two of which squashed the Ravens' hopes in the fourth quarter.

"I was really disappointed with the way I played down the stretch in that game. I've really put more focus on making good throws in the fourth quarter," Testaverde said. "It bothers me more now that it did after that game, because we could have been 4-0 [instead of 3-1]. I'm going to try not to say 'what if?' anymore this year."

Testaverde has been making those doubts fade with each passing victory.

A turning point for him might have come during the Ravens' come-from-behind, 24-23 win over the New York Giants 10 days ago. After under-throwing Jackson and getting picked off in the third quarter -- his most frustrating moment of the day -- Testaverde responded by leading the Ravens to 10 unanswered points down the stretch, including a spectacular scoring pass to a sprawled-out Jackson.

Testaverde built on that recovery with a superb showing in Tennessee. Looking relaxed and poised in the face of numerous blitzes, he read defenses quickly, changed plays at the line of scrimmage smoothly, ran the no-huddle attack deftly. He got the entire receiving corps involved throughout a 20-point first half. He threw the ball away to avoid sacks and preserve scoring drives. He seemed to make the Oilers pay for every mismatch.

"Vinny made a lot of big plays last year, and he's making better plays this year," said Alexander. "We were just starting to put this offense together this time last year. Now, we don't just hope he'll get the ball to us. We know he will. He's got the confidence in us, and he's got the confidence in himself."

The Ravens' fast-improving defense has garnered much praise during the team's surprising start. But the offense, the bright spot of last year's 4-12 disaster, has been noticeably better than the unit that recorded the NFL's sixth-highest scoring output (371 points) in 1996.

Consider that through four games, the Ravens have scored more points (110-66), gained more yards (1,456-1,189) and have more first downs (86-73) than at this point a year ago. Their top running back, Bam Morris, was missing for the first four games both seasons, but it hasn't hurt the production as much this year.

Testaverde, who during the winning streak has avoided the late mistakes that cost the Ravens several games last season, said it all comes down to comfort and confidence.

"The whole offense has progressed. We've come a long way, even going back to the great things we were getting done at the end of last year," said Testaverde, who threw for over 4,000 yards for the first time in 1996, recorded 33 touchdowns and earned his first Pro Bowl as a reward.

"We're excited with the way this offense has developed. Now, we all understand not just what this individual pass route is, but we understand the philosophy behind that play. Confidence has so much to do with it."

Said quarterbacks coach Don Strock: "Vinny has played better this year than last, no question about it. He's better prepared. He's been more patient. He understands our strengths and weaknesses and his keys better. Part of it is we have more of a game plan now, more of a set offense. All we need now are more footballs [to keep the receivers happy]."

Since that Jacksonville loss, Testaverde has thrown six touchdown passes and only two interceptions. He is second in the league with nine scoring passes overall. Since starting the fourth quarter of that Giants victory, he has completed 33 of 51 passes for 408 yards, without getting picked off. He is second in the NFL with 1,138 passing yards. He is making the plays in the fourth quarter that he didn't a year ago.

Testaverde acknowledges the numbers with a nod and a smile. Then, he quickly guards against any hint of cockiness.

"I've still missed on some deep throws, and I still try to force balls where I shouldn't," he said. "I've had some good games, but I don't think I've played up to the level where I want to play. Not yet."

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