Some opening-night jitters Team on field to offer a few new elements, too

August 08, 1998|By Mike Preston | Mike Preston,SUN STAFF

This is one big, emotional trial run on the field as well as around it.

The Ravens open the preseason as well as a $220 million later-to-be-named stadium in Camden Yards tonight when they play the Chicago Bears before an expected crowd of more than 69,000.

Usually, preseason games are ho-hum affairs. The starters play no more than a half before being substituted by the second string, which is replaced in the fourth period by players who usually end up in the CFL or are never heard from again.

But it will be a little different tonight because this is a new stadium with a team that has a new offense, a new backfield, a suspect secondary, a coach in the final year of his contract and an owner named Art Modell who wants a playoff-caliber team.

The Ravens are not fully revved for this one, but they're buzzed.

"At this point, if you play in front of 30,000, 50,000 or 70,000 people, we still have to go out and play hard no matter what," Ravens receiver Michael Jackson said. "We have to focus on winning games, not the hype. It should be exciting for the fans. The new stadium will add an emotional degree to us and the city of Baltimore. We'll have something to identify with."

"It's just a preseason game," defensive tackle James Jones said. "It will be good to get the fanfare of the first game out of the way and get down to the business of playing football. It will only be exciting because any time you go out there and all those fans are behind you, you get excited. That's part of your job."

Fans will get their first glimpse at the Ravens' new two-back set offense and quarterback Jim Harbaugh, who spent four seasons in Indianapolis before signing with the Ravens on Feb. 14. Harbaugh has played well and confidently in training camp; now it's showtime.

"Jim is a youthful 34," Ravens coach Ted Marchibroda said. "He takes care of his body, is always in excellent shape and works all year round. He has taken his share of hits. I wouldn't say he thrives on those things, but he's always ready to come back for more."

The battle for the starting running back job has an added dimension. It's second-year player Jay Graham against veteran Errict Rhett. Graham is No. 1 on the depth chart, but the competition changes with the preseason games.

Both Rhett and Graham will work with the first unit as well as Ben Cavil and Spencer Folau, who will alternate at left guard.

Graham said: "You've already gone through one evaluation as far as training camp, now you get to re-examine yourself against your peers."

"Preseason games are about basic, fundamental football," Rhett said. "I'm going out there to have some fun. It doesn't matter if I run with the first or second team, I like to work. If you run with the first team, then it's not as hard because they just go out there and mash people. If you run with the second team, then it's more like a game on Sunday."

That's been a major difference in this team: some ironman mentality. Before this season, the Ravens had only a few bonafide wackos on the roster like right offensive tackle Orlando Brown, safety Bennie Thompson, and defensive linemen Michael McCrary and Tony Siragusa. Now the Ravens have Rhett, Harbaugh and cornerback Rod Woodson.

Oops. Don't forget fullback Roosevelt Potts. He is a fierce competitor and a little nutsy, too.

"They are warriors," Marchibroda said. "They've added toughness, leadership and they've all been to the playoffs in the last couple of seasons and know what it takes to get there. Clearly, this is the best Ravens team. I expect us to be a playoff caliber team."

Before that happens, the Ravens have to get some improvement out of their secondary. The Ravens added Woodson during the off-season and then drafted University of Miami cornerback Duane Starks with their No. 1 pick in April. Starks reported to camp Wednesday after a two-week holdout. He isn't expected to play much tonight, but defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis will scrutinize the rest of a secondary that finished No. 28 in pass defense a year ago.

The Ravens have several injured defensive linemen, which means backups such as defensive tackle Larry Webster and end Keith Washington will get a lot of work.

Also, Ravens punter Greg Montgomery will be monitored closely by Marchibroda. If Montgomery slips and becomes inconsistent like a year ago, the Ravens might sign veteran Reggie Roby.

"We see the work that went into making it [the stadium] happen and we don't want to disappoint anybody associated with it, including the fans," Marchibroda said. "We're ready to play the Bears. We're tired of going against each other. We're anxious to face somebody else to see how we're progressing and how much we have left. You learn just so much from practice. You learn a lot more in games.

"Because of the new stadium, because this is the first game and we haven't scrimmaged anybody, we're excited about Saturday night," he said.

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