Playoffs in cards for Ravens? Beating Arizona today seen as first step for long-shot, 4-6-1 team

November 23, 1997|By Mike Preston | Mike Preston,SUN STAFF

The hopes are faint, but there are still whispers of postseason play in the Ravens' locker room.

The Ravens (4-6-1) vs. Arizona Cardinals (2-9) today at Memorial Stadium seems to be a game with two teams going nowhere, but the Ravens still have playoff aspirations with five games remaining.

"If we finish 9-6-1, then that doesn't put us out of the playoffs," said center Wally Williams. "That's incentive to keep us playing hard. We just have to get as many W's as possible and see what happens."

Said defensive end Michael McCrary: "Hope is still there. Anytime a person has hope, they are dangerous. We're not completely out of the picture yet."

But a loss against the Cardinals pretty much would seal any chance. Even though Arizona has won only two games, it has lost two in overtime and two more by one point each. But rookie quarterback Jake Plummer has hinted the Cardinals are either close to packing it in, or have boxed up their clothing for the off-season.

"I know some of the players are already thinking that it's over, and it's a shame," Plummer said. "I'm not thinking that. I'm trying to learn as much as possible, and I strive to get better every day. The only reason I want the season to end is because it gets me closer to next season."

Said Williams: "They are better than their record. We're not going to fall into that. The key for us is to get off to a good start. We don't want them to build their egos or confidence on us. We have to let them know we mean business in Baltimore early."

The Ravens plan to put Plummer to the test like they did second-year quarterback Bobby Hoying, who was hit with all kinds of blitzes last week in the Ravens' 10-10 overtime tie with the Philadelphia Eagles.

The Ravens had nine sacks. In the past two weeks, Arizona has allowed 17. Plummer is expecting a lot of defensive looks, and Baltimore-area Pizza Huts, fearing another Monday blitz, are putting a five-sack limit on their dollar-off promotion.

"The Ravens are a young defense playing well right now," Plummer said. "I expect a number of blitzes. Every week, I keep getting blitzes that teams didn't run the week before. Other teams have gotten a lot of sacks, but sometimes I'm holding the ball too long."

But when Cardinals quarterbacks have had time to pass, they've found a solid pair of receivers in Rob Moore and Frank Sanders, who are in the top five for receptions in the NFC. Running back Leeland McElroy and fullback Larry Centers are quality players, even though McElroy, in his second year, has not proved he is Arizona's runner of the future.

The Ravens have their own questions at running back. Rookie Jay Graham, who had 154 yards against the Eagles in his first start last week, has been bothered by a bruised left ankle and has missed a lot of practice time. He is expected to start, but if not, the Ravens will go with Bam Morris as the feature back.

Morris had 517 yards rushing on 126 carries before he suffered a toe injury and was replaced by Graham last Sunday. Neither runner will be at 100 percent.

"I think I can go," Graham said. "Each day I've gotten significantly better, and I'll give it a shot."

Another area of concern is at slot receiver. Starter Jermaine Lewis practiced only once during the week because of a sprained ankle. Coach Ted Marchibroda said that if Lewis plays, it will be either at slot receiver or punt/kickoff returner, but not both.

Lewis is part of a passing game that has gone south in recent weeks. Reasons for the slump include the inconsistent play of quarterback Vinny Testaverde, the inability of receivers Michael Jackson and Derrick Alexander to separate themselves from defensive backs, and injuries to Alexander, Jackson and Lewis.

The Ravens need the passing game to complement the running game, which faces a stiff test against the Cardinals' defensive line of ends Simeon Rice and Michael Bankston and tackle Eric Swann. The Ravens also can't afford turnovers against a less-talented team, or this could turn into another Philadelphia game.

"They're aggressive on both sides of the ball and have one of the better defenses around," Marchibroda said. "The thing we haven't done with consistency is take advantage of opportunities.

"The offense didn't take advantage in the tie with Philadelphia during the game and in overtime," he said. "To get over the hump, you have to get to the next level. You have to strike when you can. You have to make the big play. It has been awhile since we got one on special teams. The defense is coming along, and we need to get the offense back into the end zone."

Pub Date: 11/23/97

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