Ravens seek balance on `D'

Revamped secondary is key to unit's success

April 28, 1999|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,SUN STAFF

Ravens middle linebacker Ray Lewis, the anchor of a defense that has improved steadily over two seasons, looked at the alterations around him and seemed to be enjoying the scenery.

Not too much has changed, though, since the Ravens emerged as one of the NFL's up-and-coming defenses in 1998. With the exception of defensive tackle James Jones, lost to Detroit via free agency, the front seven has remained intact.

That group includes three Pro Bowl players in Lewis, outside linebacker Peter Boulware and right end Michael McCrary. That group, which now includes promising second-year tackle Lional Dalton, was the prime reason the Ravens allowed fewer than 17 points in eight games last year.

The defense's main objectives in 1999 are clear. Bring its inconsistent secondary in line with the rest of the unit. Cut down on the big plays that left the Ravens with the league's 24th-ranked pass defense. Force more turnovers.

The secondary project involves a blend of unproven players and a future Hall of Famer revisiting old ground.

It starts with Rod Woodson moving from cornerback to safety, the position he played at Purdue before becoming Pittsburgh's first-round draft pick 12 years ago. It continues with the addition of rookie cornerback and top draft pick Chris McAlister, who along with second-year man Duane Starks will give the Ravens possibly the league's youngest pair of starting cornerbacks.

"The chemistry of our defense really can blossom," Lewis said. "McAlister can only help. He's a big-time player from a top-notch school. And a guy like Rod understands his position as well as anybody. If he sees one of our corners doing something wrong, he can correct it. If I was the defensive coordinator, I'd be licking my chops."

The players are digesting their first round of classroom and on-field lessons at their first minicamp, which concludes tomorrow.

The Ravens aren't trying to overhaul their defense by any stretch. Their philosophy and terminology are basically the same, as is their coordinator, Marvin Lewis.

Expect Lewis to employ some old tricks, such as dropping linemen into pass coverage in a zone-blitz scheme on passing downs. But with the addition of McAlister, the return of third-year safety Kim Herring and the relocation of Woodson, Marvin Lewis sees his defense as more flexible, more dangerous and less likely to surrender the costly play.

"Schematically, things will change a little bit. Our evolution is we'll continue to get better playing the pass. We played decent football [in 1998], but what made us look bad was giving up an explosion play after we worked our butts off," Marvin Lewis said.

"Having adequate corners allows you more flexibility. Duane and McAlister can be exceptional. We've also taken a strength from last year in Rod and centered it on a different spot. We'll benefit from his understanding of the game and his ability to communicate with the cornerbacks."

In other words, Lewis sees his defense having the ability to disguise and execute more blitzes.

For example, picture McAlister or Starks blitzing off the corner while Woodson slides over to pick up a receiver in man-to-man coverage. Or picture Woodson doubling as a nickel back and covering the slot receiver.

It's all about having options and the players to provide them.

"You need to be able to gamble more and use man coverage more. That's where [McAlister and Woodson] come in," McCrary said. "We have to tighten down the secondary this year. We have to tighten down in all areas. We did a decent job, not a great job, last year. We have to improve on that."

Said McAlister: "You can't take chances and bring a lot of pressure unless you have people who can lock up in man coverage. I've got to show them that I'm a corner who can do that. The receivers run a lot faster than guys I'm used to covering. Over time, I'll have a good feel for those receivers. The future is here already."

NOTES: The Ravens signed veteran wide receiver Qadry Ismail to a one-year contract yesterday, and he practiced with the team. Ismail, 6 feet, 190 pounds, played the past two seasons in New Orleans and Miami, respectively, without catching a pass. An accomplished kick returner, he has recorded 118 career receptions for 1,856 yards and 12 touchdowns, all with Minnesota from 1993 to 1996. Ravens coach Brian Billick ran the offense during that time with the Vikings. "I've had a lot of success with [Billick], and this team has nothing but upside," Ismail said. "I know all of the positions in Brian's offense, and I can help a lot of the young players here." The Ravens, in need of a safety since they cut veteran Ralph Staten on Monday, are talking to Corey Harris, an unrestricted free agent who played here last season.

Pub Date: 4/28/99

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