Final test for Ravens' class of '97 Young team looks to build for next year, show playoff potential

Rookies again on hot seat

Esiason gives Bengals new, old dimension

December 21, 1997|By Mike Preston | Mike Preston,SUN STAFF

CINCINNATI -- The apprenticeship ends for a lot of the Ravens today when they play the Cincinnati Bengals in the 1997 season finale at Cinergy Field.

The Ravens (6-8-1) have one of the youngest teams in the NFL, but the team is expected to grow into a playoff contender by the start of the 1998 season when they move into a new stadium at Camden Yards.

"I think the expectations should be the playoffs, there's no question about that," said coach Ted Marchibroda, who is completing his second year with the Ravens.

"With Jacksonville, we've lost four games by a total of 10 points in two years," he said. "So we're close to Jacksonville, and we beat Pittsburgh one out of four. We will have a ballclub that I think will be much better."

The Ravens won't have their internal review of the season until Jan. 19, but it's apparent that the team has needs at cornerback, fullback, running back and left guard.

After the season, the Ravens will shed some $7 million in cap money tied to such former players as Andre Rison, Leroy Hoard and Pepper Johnson.

It won't be surprising if the Ravens trade first- and second-round draft picks to possibly move up in the top four of the draft and select either Tennessee quarterback Peyton Manning or Michigan cornerback Charles Woodson.

Last year was not a great draft for second-round picks. The Ravens are one of the few to have second-round picks in their starting lineup.

"Guys like [safeties Ralph] Staten and [Kim] Herring are still learning. They could be a year away or a few years away," Marchibroda said. "But you have to play them and see if they do well. Three games won't put those kids in the Pro Bowl, but our kids have performed as well as anybody's."

Today's game against the Bengals matches teams that have won their past two games.

The Bengals (6-9) have been on a roll with veteran Boomer Esiason, who is the hottest quarterback in the league, having led the Bengals to a 3-1 mark in the past four weeks.

Bengals coach Bruce Coslet changed quarterbacks after Cincinnati was eliminated from contention because he wanted Jeff Blake to watch from the sideline and relax.

Instead, Esiason has turned up the heat and jeopardized Blake's standing as the team's quarterback of the future.

With Blake starting in Baltimore in the second week of the season, Cincinnati managed only 10 points and was shut out in the second half as the Ravens won, 23-10. With Esiason running the show, Cincinnati has topped 30 points for the past four games, a franchise first.

"They look a lot better," Ravens linebacker Peter Boulware said. "They're running the ball with a lot more confidence. Their line is coming off a lot harder. They have a quarterback in the pocket and he's just completing passes. It looks like a totally different offense. From watching film, it looks like they're going to be hard to stop."

Coslet said: "Boomer has always been a good field general. But he has never been more accurate than he is now."

The Ravens also have to find a way to slow receiver Darnay Scott and tight end Tony McGee, who have 81 combined receptions. Second-year safeties Herring and Staten and second-year cornerback DeRon Jenkins give the Ravens a young secondary.

"I think the rooks will be all right," Herring said. "We have played well lately. We have to be aware of Cincinnati's passing game, especially all the crossing routes they run."

The Ravens will need pressure on the immobile Esiason, and that may be difficult because three of their four starting defensive linemen, ends Michael McCrary (knee) and Rob Burnett (ankle) and defensive tackle Tony Siragusa (fractured hand), have been slowed by injuries.

Burnett is not likely to play. Game-time decisions will be made on McCrary and Siragusa.

On offense, the Ravens will start third-year quarterback Eric Zeier for the third consecutive game. Zeier has produced two wins while replacing Vinny Testaverde, including a 21-19 victory last Sunday over the Tennessee Oilers that featured a career-high three touchdown passes.

If Zeier plays well, then the Ravens have to open the quarterback job heading into training camp next July.

"This keeps my options open for next season," Marchibroda said.

If history is a guide, the Bengals will be hard to beat. The only thing at stake is last place -- the loser finishes at the bottom of the AFC Central.

The Bengals play their best in meaningless games.

Even though Cincinnati has not had a winning record since 1990, the Bengals have become expert at finishing a losing season with a win. Cincinnati has won its final home game in eight of the past nine seasons.

"They are tough to beat at home, especially in the winter," punter Greg Montgomery said. "If we go up there without our heads being screwed on tight, we'll have them handed to us before we leave."

Pub Date: 12/21/97

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