Veteran front men set stage for success In trickle-down theory, Ravens' season turns on play in the trenches

Defensive line

September 04, 1998|By Mike Preston | Mike Preston,SUN STAFF

One year after having the NFL's 10th-best run defense, the Ravens' defensive line returns intact and wiser. And just like last season, if the line plays well, so will the entire defense.

"It all starts up front," said tackle Larry Webster, the former University of Maryland standout. "In this scheme, if we play well, penetrate in the backfield or rush the quarterback, it all trickles down to the linebackers and defensive backs."

End Mike Frederick said, "We can be one of the better defensive lines in the league. We've got everything you can ask for -- speed, power and intelligence. This is our third year in the system and we know each other pretty well."

The power comes from starting tackles James Jones (6 feet 2, 290 pounds) and Tony Siragusa (6-3, 320), who rotate with Webster (6-5, 288). The trio is the main reason the Ravens allowed 105.6 yards rushing per game last season and middle linebacker Ray Lewis had 210 tackles.

Their main job is to penetrate, shoot gaps and keep the guards and center off Lewis. It sounds easy, but it wears on the body.

"This sounds bad, but in this defense you have to be selfish to get the complete picture," Webster said. "You don't worry about making the play, but just doing your job. That might mean you have to take a step here or a step there, or take on two people to free up one. With this defensive line, everyone brings something to the table."

The speed will come from ends Michael McCrary (6-4, 270) and Rob Burnett (6-4, 280). A year ago, both were coming off major knee surgeries. McCrary hurt his knee only weeks before the season started and Burnett reinjured his during the season.

But both stayed in the lineup, virtually playing on one leg. McCrary finished with 80 tackles (including nine sacks) and Burnett had 59, the third- and seventh-best totals on the team.

Both are fully recovered and played extremely well in the preseason. Between the two and strong-side linebacker Peter Boulware, the Ravens have to put pressure on the quarterback to provide relief for a suspect secondary.

"Both guys were kind of up and down last year with knee problems," Webster said. "This year, there will be a battle to see who gets the most sacks."

A year ago, the Ravens had two new faces on the line with McCrary and Siragusa. There were times when assignments were missed and some of the linemen started free-lancing to make plays. That happened in the Miami game, when the Dolphins ran for 148 yards.

That's very unlikely to happen this season.

"We've all got a year under our belts, in some cases, three," Frederick said. "We know our responsibilities. We're all on the same page."

The Ravens also have decent depth. Besides Webster and Frederick, Keith Washington is a solid performer at end, and the club has some young, raw talent in rookie free agents Lional Dalton and Larry Fitzpatrick.

Scouting report

Strengths: This is a veteran group that should be able to stop the run as well as pressure the quarterback. The line is particularly strong inside.

Weaknesses: Three of the four starters have had knee problems that might slow them down by the end of the season.

Skinny: The defensive line must have a solid season because the Ravens will face some of the NFL's best running backs -- Jerome Bettis, Barry Sanders and Eddie George to name a few.

Preseason grade: B. The potential is there to earn an A.

Pub Date: 9/04/98

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