Ravens instill first-rate plan for linebackers

Starters and backups learn not to settle for anything 2nd-best

August 19, 1999|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,SUN STAFF

Ravens linebackers coach Jack Del Rio knows he is blessed with two of the NFL's most formidable weapons in Ray Lewis and Peter Boulware.

Not that Del Rio lacks a list of things to do. For starters, Del Rio wants to bring out the potential in third-year man Jamie Sharper. And as for backups like middle linebacker Tyrus McCloud and outside linebacker Cornell Brown, Del Rio wants second-line players who refuse to settle for second-best.

And even Lewis and Boulware require continuous polishing.

"Having great players makes it a lot more fun to coach the position, but we've still got a lot of work to do," Del Rio said. "Those guys [Lewis and Boulware] still have to work every day, they know that, they work hard every day, and that's why they're that good.

"I'm trying to get [the backups] out of the mode of `Well, I'm just a backup and I'm never going to play. It doesn't matter,' because it does matter. My job is to be straight and honest with them. I want to clear up any gray areas with anybody. Everybody has to understand exactly what they are being asked to do."

McCloud is a good example of a player who now understands.

When the fourth-round draft pick joined the Ravens in 1997, he talked brashly about beating out Lewis, who already was a budding star in the middle. McCloud spent much of his rookie year pouting about being relegated to special teams duty.

He's grown up now. His second year was cut short by a knee injury that required surgery and lengthy rehabilitation. McCloud shed some 15 pounds in the off-season, and is now a svelte 238. And he knows that only a Ray Lewis injury will put him in the lineup.

"One thing I have learned about the NFL is you have to understand your role and accept it and work at it," McCloud said. "Ray has established himself as the best linebacker in the NFL. I can be content, but I have to keep pushing myself to be as good as Ray Lewis."

With three seasons and two Pro Bowls already behind him, Lewis' reputation is intact. Few linebackers can match his ability to shed blocks and pursue the ball from sideline to sideline. His speed and relentless hustle have become measuring sticks around the league.

Did you see Lewis miss three tackles, then get up and make each stop on the second try in the preseason opener last week against Philadelphia? That's right, a preseason game.

"What separates Ray from a lot of people is he has a burning desire to make the play. There's a real passion about the way he approaches the game, and it's contagious for the other guys," Del Rio said.

"I knew he was good, and now that I've studied lots of film and worked with him every day, I can really appreciate the things he does. It all begins with the energy he brings to the field."

At outside linebacker, Boulware and Sharper bring contrasting styles to the game.

Boulware, whose conversion from defensive end was complete after he made his first Pro Bowl in 1998, has become adept at taking on blocks and dropping into pass coverage, while retaining his fine pass-rushing skills. He has been transformed from one-dimensional to multi-dimensional. Sharper, whose speed makes the starting trio arguably the quickest in the league, has struggled in the pass defense game. He is trying to earn the chance to play on third down in 1999.

"Peter probably is not as comfortable with what he's doing as other people watching him are. He's a perfectionist," Del Rio said. "He has worked hard on his linebacker reads and skills. He's made a lot of progress.

"I've told Jamie that we need more production out of that [weakside] position. I've put the pressure on him to get it done. I believe he will get better. We have to push the right buttons. His biggest thing is increasing his awareness, his football presence. There's no question that he has the physical skills."

While Boulware continues to nurse his tender right shoulder in camp, the Ravens are taking a longer look at third-year man Cornell Brown, already one of their dependable special teams performers. The sixth-round draft pick out of Virginia Tech has taken Boulware's repetitions for most of training camp, and Brown figures to start the next two preseason games.

If the Ravens decide to carry only six linebackers, it will be interesting to see if Tyrell Peters or Brad Jackson grabs the final spot. Peters has the edge in experience, but the Ravens like Jackson's cover skills and ability on special teams.

Ravens camp

When: Through next Thursday

Where: Western Maryland College, Westminster

Today's practice times: 10: 15 a.m.-noon; 4 p.m.-5: 30 p.m.

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

Next for Ravens

Preseason opponent: Atlanta Falcons

Site: Georgia Dome, Atlanta

When: Saturday, 7: 30 p.m.

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

Line: Falcons by 4 1/2

Pub Date: 8/19/99

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