Ravens' goal: defuse Jags Jacksonville offense varied and explosive, but talent gap shrinks

September 18, 1998|By Mike Preston | Mike Preston,SUN STAFF

During the past two seasons, the Ravens have progressed from having the worst defense in the league to one that is tied for the No. 7 ranking. This weekend, they will find out if the unit is possibly good enough to carry them to the postseason.

The Ravens travel to Jacksonville on Sunday to face a Jaguars team that is in a class with San Francisco, Green Bay and Denver for explosive, multidimensional NFL offenses.

In their first two games, the Ravens faced some great players -- Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Kordell Stewart and running back Jerome Bettis; New York Jets receiver Keyshawn Johnson and running back Curtis Martin -- but Jacksonville has the total package.

"From an overall standpoint, they are the best offensive team we've faced and may face," said Ravens defensive tackle James Jones. "They have been together for a while, so they have experience.

"They've been consistent with the same players at the skilled positions, like quarterback Mark Brunell and receivers Keenan McCardell and Jimmy Smith. They have a big, physical offensive line and a solid running back in James Stewart. We better be very team conscious this week."

Now that the Ravens, who are 0-4 against the Jaguars, finally have enough talent on the field to match Jacksonville's, the matchup becomes a coaching chess match again. Ravens defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis said he looks forward to the challenge.

"The potential is there for Jacksonville to be the most explosive offense we've faced," said Lewis, whose defense has yielded just 273.5 yards a game. "They make you cover all of your bases because they have so many weapons and use a lot of different looks.

"In the last two years, we have taken some steps to match up a lot better with them. We have to go into the game with a good understanding of what they're doing and then we can get the good matchups."

Where does one start trying to defend against Jacksonville, which is averaging 311.5 yards? First, there's Brunell. He'll be the X-factor. Not only can he throw the ball anywhere on the field, but he also is running more than a year ago, when he was recovering from a knee injury.

He reads defenses well, which compounds the problem of pressuring him, because he takes only a five-step drop. Brunell has completed 33 of 53 passes for 333 yards and three touchdowns. He has two interceptions.

"He is adept at recognizing pre-snap pressure and then making the audible adjustment or just getting under the center, taking the snap and having the receiver make the adjustment," Lewis said. "They have all played together for a while. They're all on the same page. That's one of their great assets. When you pressure them, you can't be obvious."

The Ravens drafted players like outside linebacker Peter Boulware and signed free agents like defensive end Mike McCrary and Jones to pressure and run down quarterbacks like Brunell, Stewart and the Tennessee Oilers' Steve McNair. But with Brunell, there has to be a plan to the pressure.

"You don't want to hold up all your rushers, or you play into their hands," Lewis said. "If you go with three-, four- or five-man pressure, you've got to know where he is. If you do flush him, you have to make sure you flush him the right way."

Brunell has two Pro Bowl receivers in McCardell and Smith. Maybe no player has been more of a Ravens killer the past two seasons than McCardell, who has caused a lot of problems from the slot position. Smith is more of a burner who can stretch defenses. McCardell is a possession type.

Together, they have combined for 233 yards and two touchdowns on 21 receptions this season.

"They mix up the patterns pretty well," Lewis said. "They will throw deep about five to six times a game just to see if they can flat-out outrun you. I don't know if McCardell has hurt us more than any other team he has played against, but Jacksonville has done a good job of adjusting to our coverage when we've double-teamed him."

The Ravens signed Rod Woodson in the off-season to match up with the other team's best receiver. They also drafted University of Miami cornerback Duane Starks in the first round so that Woodson could cover the slot receiver in passing situations and give the Ravens other options and Starks could use his cover skills on the left side.

Could this be checkmate?

Jacksonville moved McCardell around last week to get him away from Kansas City Chiefs cornerback James Hasty until late in the game.

"Oh, I can't tell you our plans, but we got some things that might work," said Ravens strong safety Stevon Moore.

Stopping the Jaguars' running game may be easier, at least on the blackboard. Jacksonville isn't pretty with its scheme. The Jaguars like to run off tackle behind Tony Boselli and Leon Searcy. The Jaguars resemble the Ravens up front.

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