The Ravens' starting linebacking corps is on the verge of being good with the potential to be great.
Meet middle linebacker Ray Lewis and sophomore teammates Peter Boulware and Jamie Sharper. Lewis earned a Pro Bowl berth last year in his second season. Boulware was the NFL's Defensive Rookie of the Year. Sharper was one of the team's top four tacklers as a rookie and could push Lewis for top honors this year.
"They still have a ways to go," said defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis. "They have a lot more physical ability than they're showing. They still get overzealous and want to make every play, which gets them in trouble.
"Once they learn to do their jobs consistently every day on every play, it will only enhance their performance. Overall, though, I'm pleased with our linebackers."
As a group, they are a year older and physically bigger. Boulware and Sharper each have added 10 to 15 pounds of bulk. The trio knows its reputation is growing, and all three are ready to accept the challenge.
"We know the challenge is going to be there every week, but is the challenge ready for us?" said Ray Lewis, the team's defensive leader.
Lewis, 6 feet 1 and 240 pounds, may have the most difficult test. The Pro Bowl appearance earned him instant recognition, but made him a marked man. When teams run at the Ravens in 1998, Lewis, who had 210 tackles last season, will definitely get blocked by being trapped, double-teamed or held.
Boulware, 6-4 and 255 pounds, also will draw a lot of attention, particularly in passing situations. He had 11 1/2 sacks, one shy of tying the NFL's all-time rookie record. That should leave some room for the 6-3, 240-pound Sharper, who as the weak-side linebacker is generally uncovered.
According to Ray Lewis, versatility is the key to the group's success.
"I think when other teams watch film they see we're not as big as other linebackers," he said. "But speed is an important part of our game. We can run with most tight ends and running backs. If you are versatile, you can do anything on the field. That's what makes us unique.
"We've improved a great deal. Mentally, we're focused. We don't have to worry about missed assignments or blown coverages. We're settled in now. Now it's time to have some fun. The coach can only give you the defense, but you're the one who has to
take it over."
Depth won't be a problem for the Ravens. The team is loaded with young backups like Tyrus McCloud in the middle, Cornell Brown on the strong side and Tyrell Peters on the weak side.
Lewis and McCloud both can play outside.
"We have two very strong groups," Ray Lewis said.
Strengths: The group is young, aggressive and has great speed. None of the starting three lacks confidence.
Weaknesses: Sometimes the aggressiveness causes them to blow assignments. All three starters need to improve on pass coverage.
Skinny: If Jamie Sharper steps up his game from a year ago, the Ravens will have one of the best trios in the league.
Preseason grade: B. By midseason, this group should be in peak form.
Pub Date: 9/04/98