Road test to take measure of Ravens Better matchups spur hopes of beating Jags

September 20, 1998|By Mike Preston | Mike Preston,SUN STAFF

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Today is hump day for the Ravens.

If they beat the Jacksonville Jaguars at Alltel Stadium, it would be the Ravens' first big road win against a playoff-caliber team forecast by several national publications to play in the Super Bowl.

If they beat the Jaguars, it would erase the bitter memories of four previous losses to a team the Ravens have never beaten.

If they defeat Jacksonville, the Ravens would have to be considered a big-time player in the AFC Central race.

If, if, if

"We know that this will be a tough team to beat at their place," coach Ted Marchibroda said. "But we know we can play with them. We played them tough when we didn't have everybody we have now. We're going down there with some confidence, knowingthis is a great opportunity before we come home for a couple of games."

It's true that the Ravens have their best team since moving to Baltimore nearly three years ago, but they suffered an emotional setback by losing, 20-13, in the season opener to Pittsburgh in a game the Ravens physically dominated.

The Ravens rebounded with a 24-10 win against the New York Jets last Sunday in East Rutherford, N.J., but a win against the Jaguars would show that the Ravens have arrived. Jacksonville has won 15 of its past 17 at home.

"If we beat Jacksonville, it doesn't guarantee us a winning season or a spot in the playoffs," backup quarterback Eric Zeier said. "But psychologically, it would be a big win for us because we have never beaten this franchise."

History has not been kind to the Browns/Ravens in this series. As an expansion team, the Jaguars knocked off the Cleveland Browns twice in 1995. The string of bad luck continued when the club moved to Baltimore.

On Nov. 10, 1996, the Ravens blew a 14-point halftime lead and Jacksonville won, 30-27, when quarterback Mark Brunell scored on a 1-yard run with 41 seconds left in the game. Fourteen days later, Mike Hollis kicked a 34-yard field goal in overtime for a 28-25 Jacksonville win as the Ravens blew a 15-point fourth-quarter lead.

Painful, eh?

There's more. Jacksonville defeated the Ravens, 28-27, in the season opener last year, as the Ravens failed to score on their final three possessions. The ultimate embarrassment occurred last Nov. 30, when Zeier tripped over offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden's leg trying to run a draw on a two-point conversion with 1: 10 left in the game. Final score: Jacksonville 29, Baltimore 27.

"That one play, more than any, symbolizes our past failures against Jacksonville," Zeier said. "You try to put a play like that in the past and concentrate on the future. That's what we're doing. We're a different team now."

And that's what has the Ravens so excited. They stayed close with Jacksonville despite having players like Mike Croel, Jerrol Williams, Issac Booth and Sedric Clark.

The Ravens say they match up better with Jacksonville now. Brunell and Jaguars wide receivers Keenan McCardell and Jimmy Smith meet cornerbacks Rod Woodson and Duane Starks and more mature linebackers Peter Boulware and Jamie Sharper.

Jacksonville has players who have been to the playoffs the past two years. The Ravens now have some playoff experience, too, by adding players like Woodson, quarterback Jim Harbaugh and fullback Roosevelt Potts.

"The Ravens are an up-and-coming team," Brunell said. "They have a very physical defense and players who are relentless. This isn't the same team we've played the past two seasons. That makes us work harder. We're concerned."

The Ravens have to slow Jacksonville's offense, which is averaging 311.5 yards a game. The Jaguars have multiple weapons, but the Ravens have to stuff the run early, particularly running back James Stewart, who has 218 yards rushing on 52 carries in the first two games.

If that happens, the Ravens can concentrate on McCardell, Smith and Brunell.

"We don't need guys out there making spectacular plays, but just guys completing assignments," said outside linebacker Boulware, whose starting unit will be without free safety Kim Herring (dislocated left shoulder). "We got into trouble last year when we started free-lancing too much. For this defense to be successful, you have to have discipline and put on pressure. This defense has found its identity."

On offense, the Ravens say they can run against Jacksonville, which will have three starting defensive linemen out of the game: Seth Payne, Tony Brackens and Jeff Lageman. But the Ravens weren't too concerned about the line; they have to get to linebackers Bryce Paup, Bryan Schwartz and Kevin Hardy.

"They are the team's top three tacklers," right offensive tackle Orlando Brown said. "They cover a lot of ground and are very physical. But that's the style we like to play, too."

The Ravens' running game has struggled in the past two games, but if they get it going today, it would take a lot of pressure off quarterback Jim Harbaugh, who hasn't fully recovered from a hyper-extended ring finger on his right throwing hand and tendinitis in his right elbow.

Harbaugh has not played a full half yet this season, and if he falters, Marchibroda said he would not hesitate going to Zeier, who has played well in the first two games.

Ravens today

Ravens at Jaguars

Site: Alltel Stadium, Jacksonville, Fla.

Time: 4:15 p.m.

Line: Jaguars by 6 1/2

XTC TV/Radio: Ch. 13/WJFK (1300 AM), WLIF (101.9 FM)

Pub Date: 9/20/98

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