Expect motion in Ravens' backfield

Without a star back, Billick sees group effort

August 06, 1999|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,SUN STAFF

Given the choice, Ravens coach Brian Billick would love to hang the bulk of his ground game on the shoulders of one running back. Given the reality he faces, Billick is prepared to let a slew of candidates share the chore.

The Ravens are not exactly long on star power at the tailback position. They also are not short on bodies. The crowded picture looks like this:

Priest Holmes, fresh off a breakthrough year in which he became the first Raven to rush for 1,000 yards, remains the top tailback on the depth chart. Then again, with an eye on talents like Pittsburgh's Jerome Bettis, Tennessee's Eddie George, Jacksonville's Fred Taylor and Cincinnati's Corey Dillon, Ravens vice president of player personnel Ozzie Newsome has called Holmes "the fifth-best running back in our division."

Behind Holmes are veteran backs Errict Rhett and Jay Graham, each of whom is toting a sizable question mark about how much he can contribute.

Rhett, arguably the most underused player on the roster in 1998, has not been an every-down back since he carried 332 times for 1,207 yards -- both career-highs -- for Tampa Bay in 1995. Graham, a third-round draft pick out of Tennessee in 1997, has become known more for his knee and ankle injuries than his yardage.

Then there are veterans Steve Broussard and Eric Metcalf, who are battling for the role of third-down receiver out of the backfield. And don't forget fullback Chuck Evans, who figures to carry the ball more than he has in six previous seasons.

"There are featured guys [in the NFL] like Terrell Davis, Emmitt Smith and Barry Sanders, but that's a rare breed," Billick said. "Even if you have a featured back, it takes a unique blend of cat to take all of the snaps. Until [a back] adapts himself as someone who I can't take out of the game, we'll be rolling them through."

Billick added that, by NFL standards, the running back position usually operates with a committee-type approach. Out of a hypothetical 450 carries a team records over a season, Billick sees the No. 1 back taking about 250, with the rest of the work divided among two or more backups.

Holmes is being given the chance to set the tone once again in 1999. At 5 feet 9, 205 pounds, he rates a bit small for a workhorse back, although Holmes did start the final 13 games as a second-year player last year. He also picked up 400 of his 1,008 yards over two games against the Cincinnati Bengals, who had the worst run defense in the league.

"Everybody talks about how [Holmes] got all those yards against the Bengals," Newsome said. "There are other good backs in the division and they didn't get those yards against Cincinnati."

Holmes said, after reviewing his season on videotape, he saw plenty of room for improvement.

"I could see a missed cut here or there, or how I wasn't being decisive enough or patient enough at times," Holmes said. "I've been able to go to a certain height, but I feel like I can go even higher."

Billick sees Holmes and Rhett with fairly similar styles. He said Rhett has an edge in quickness and explosion into the line, while Holmes rates as the smoother runner. Rhett, who beat out Graham for the starting job in the season opener last year, lost out to Holmes after struggling early in Week 2. Rhett had just 20 carries over the final 14 games.

"There is no reason why [Holmes and Rhett] can't complement one another," Billick said.

While Rhett at least can hang consecutive 1,000-yard seasons on his resume, Graham, entering his third year, has had one great game -- a 154-yard effort against Philadelphia in 1997. The good news is Graham has recovered from the knee injury that sidelined him for the last eight games of 1998.

"Jay has been holding up well. He's carrying his pads well, hitting the hole and he's holding on to the ball," Billick said. "He's got to see things a little bit better, and that will come from experience and learning the system."

With the preseason opener looming in Philadelphia in six days, the real tests are coming.

Ravens camp

When: Through Aug. 26

Where: Western Maryland College, Westminster

Directions from Baltimore: Take Interstate 695 to Exit 19 to I-795 north to its end. Follow signs to Westminster via Route 140 west to Route 31 south. At blinking yellow light, turn left (Route 31). At first traffic light, turn left on Main Street. Proceed up the hill. The parking entrance is on the left.

Information: 410-261-FANS

Pub Date: 8/06/99

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