It has been such an outstanding first quarter of the season, one in such contrast to last year, that coach Ted Marchibroda is a little amazed.
In less than one season, the Ravens (3-1) have come almost full circle from when they finished 4-12. And the reasons are relatively simple: The Ravens are playing solid defense, the offense is as explosive as a year ago, backups have played well in place of injured starters and the team is coming up with big plays in the fourth quarter.
The latter never happened last season, when the Ravens lost eight of their last 10 games after blowing second-half leads.
"There is a difference in attitude," Marchibroda said. "We're playing more as a team and we've overcome some injuries. I also think Vinny [Testaverde, quarterback] has a better understanding of the offense and his receivers, what they can do and who to go to in crunch time. And our special-teams unit has done a much better job than last year."
But let's start with big plays. One of the basic principles in the NFL is for the coaching staff to keep the team within striking distance until the last six to seven minutes in a game, when big-money players have to make big plays.
It didn't happen a year ago. Remember safety Eric Turner dropping a potential game-winning interception against the Jacksonville Jaguars? Or the offense failing to get the game-tying touchdown from the 1-yard line against the Cincinnati Bengals?
This year, the Ravens rallied for a 24-23 win over the New York Giants, as Testaverde led the team to 10 unanswered points down the stretch, including a spectacular scoring pass to a sprawled-out Michael Jackson. In the same game, second-year middle linebacker Ray Lewis knocked down a potential game-winning pass in the fourth quarter.
Against the Tennessee Oilers on Sunday, Matt Stover converted five of six field-goal attempts, including two in the last eight minutes, in a 36-10 victory. A year ago, Stover missed two game-winning field-goal tries.
"There is more confidence now," Marchibroda said. "I think they're beginning to believe more and more, and with each passing game we gain a little more confidence."
Out with the old
Part of the success comes from the Ravens' off-season overhaul, as the front office decided to get rid of some players who were considered malcontents or didn't want to play the way favored by Marchibroda and defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis.
The Ravens cut Turner, linebacker Mike Caldwell and defensive tackle Dan Footman. They also lost free-agent center Steve Everitt, who didn't want to play in Baltimore, anyway.
But when those players left, others such as Ray Lewis, right offensive tackle Orlando Brown and safeties Stevon Moore and Bennie Thompson emerged from their shadows to join Testaverde, running back Earnest Byner and defensive end Rob Burnett as team leaders.
"We have a different mental approach," Testaverde said. "Last year, it was tough coming out here and guys were complaining. This year, it's fun working."
in with the new...
The other part of the off-season success came through free agency, where the team added defensive players like end Michael McCrary and tackle Tony Siragusa. McCrary has 10 tackles, including 1 1/2 sacks and many hurries. Plugging the middle of the line, Siragusa has 13 tackles and helped stop such runners as Jacksonville's Natrone Means, Cincinnati's Ki-Jana Carter and Tennessee's Eddie George.
Then there were the additions of draft picks Peter Boulware and Jamie Sharper, both starting outside linebackers. Boulware is BTC tied with Moore for second on the team with 23 tackles and leads the team with four sacks. The Ravens had 30 sacks all of last season.
"Signing McCrary and drafting Boulware and Sharper and having Lewis in the middle with a year behind him, they've really improved that team," said Giants coach Jim Fassel.
Marchibroda said, "We haven't seen the best of Peter. He needs to get better as far as recognition, but his great effort gives him the ability to make plays all over the field. The best is yet to come."
Offensively, the line has been the most pleasant surprise. The Ravens lost three starters from a year ago, then lost two top reserves for the season in the first week of training camp. When starting center Quentin Neujahr went down with an ankle injury in Week 2, the situation became grim.
But the team never really missed centers Wally Williams (torn Achilles' tendon) or Neujahr, as left guard Leo Goeas was moved to center and Ben Cavil to guard. Goeas had played center in only one previous game and Cavil was signed a week before the season started.
Compared with their first four games last year, the Ravens have scored more points (110-66), gained more yards (1,456-1,189) and have more first downs (86-73).