Billick-built Ravens to take first test drive

New coach looks to get handle on team as preseason starts tonight

August 12, 1999|By Mike Preston | Mike Preston,SUN STAFF

PHILADELPHIA -- As the curtain is about to rise on the Ravens' 1999 preseason, new coach Brian Billick has no idea what will happen tonight against the Philadelphia Eagles at Veterans Stadium.

Have his players soaked up enough knowledge to at least be competitive on offense? Will a defense that has improved the past three years take the next step and dominate games by making big plays? Which skill players will emerge at wide receiver, running back and quarterback?

"I'm not really nervous, but I'm anxious for these guys," Billick said of tonight's game. "I honest to God don't know what we'll see. I really don't. I haven't been around this team enough. I kind of think I know. I think we'll see some aggressiveness, some pop. We'll see some want, we'll see a certain level of efficiency. You're [also] going to see a tipped ball that's intercepted, a guy jump offside, a quarterback move a receiver because he is lined up in the wrong position.

"They know what to do, know where to go and how to do it," said Billick. "Whether they can carry that into a game atmosphere, that's what we're going to find out. If they can't function, we'll get other players. This is a system that is well proven, well documented and well thought out. I'm not talking about X's and O's, but how we practice, how we prepare in meetings, how we prepare for a game and the emotional state we take into a game."

The Ravens may be without four of their top players, all of whom were selected to the AFC Pro Bowl squad last season. Defensive end Michael McCrary (knee) and outside linebacker Peter Boulware (shoulder) have had limited practices and probably won't play until the third or fourth preseason games. Left offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden has been bothered by a hip flexor for the last two games and is questionable, along with receiver/punt returner Jermaine Lewis, who has a sore hamstring.

Decisions on both players will be made at game time. If Ogden doesn't play, he'll be replaced by third-year player Spencer Folau. If Lewis is out, Qadry Ismail and Webster Slaughter will split time in his spot.

"Jonathan says he feels better, so this will be a game-time decision," Billick said. "We want to win this game. You don't play them if you don't want to win. If he feels he can go, get some good out of a quarter of playing, then he will go. If he and the trainers or doctors feel independently or collectively that he can't go, he won't play. We will not risk a Pro Bowl player's health on a preseason game. The same situation applies to Jermaine Lewis."

Whether or not any of the four play, there is suspense surrounding the game. Starters are expected to play only a quarter, but this will mark the debut of quarterback Scott Mitchell as well as fullback Chuck Evans and right offensive tackle Harry Swayne.

Also, James Atkins will be starting at left guard for the first time, making the transition from tackle, and the team has a number of new faces at receiver, including Ismail, Slaughter, Justin Armour, Billy Davis and Kendrick Nord, plus three new tight ends in Lovett Purnell, Aaron Pierce and Greg DeLong. Third-down specialists Eric Metcalf and Steve Broussard are also making their first appearances at running back.

The Ravens have had two minicamps and 12 days of training camp to get to know each other and work out some of the kinks.

"This will be a good barometer for us," Mitchell said. "Preseason games are not an indication of how well you will do during the regular season. But this game will start to show us how we approach a regular-season game. You have to get your mind right. We've had a lot thrown at us, and I've think we've done well. But we all haven't been together in a situation like this before. This will be a growing time for us. We're still trying to learn each other."

Said Atkins: "The first thing we have to do is get the plays down and learn the system. Then we have to work hard and gain some continuity. The third thing is just go out and play ball, play hard and not back down from anyone. We've picked the offense up pretty well. Now it's time to just go out and play somebody. After all these practices, it's nice to go out and hit someone else."

The Ravens' defense is the opposite of the offense. Billick retained defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis from former coach Ted Marchibroda's staff, and of the starting 11 tonight, all have started before except for Cornell Brown, who will replace Boulware. Keith Washington will substitute for McCrary.

Not much has changed in Lewis' gap-control, pressure defense. At defensive tackle, veteran Larry Webster has replaced James Jones, who signed with Detroit in the off-season. Ron Woodson has moved from cornerback to safety.

The defense has been way ahead of the offense in training camp, but the Ravens want to solidify the unit and set a tone for the season.

"Don't take anything for granted in this league," Webster said. "Just because you're a starter now doesn't mean you're a starter when the season starts. Just as fast as your name was written in with a pencil, they can erase you. There are always younger guys behind you pushing and waiting for that opportunity."

Said cornerback Duane Starks: "After two to three weeks of going against each other, it's time to go out and see what we can do. It's important for us to set a tone right away. People are saying our offense is not considered one of the best in the league, but looking at our defense as the key."

NOTE: Reserve fullback Tony Vinson has been bothered by a lower-calf problem and may not play tonight. A decision on his status will be made at game time.

Ravens tonight

Preseason opponent: Philadelphia Eagles

Site: Veterans Stadium, Philadelphia

Time: 8

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

Line: Eagles by 3

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