Falcons raise standard for growing Ravens

NFC champs offer challenge for team's sluggish offense

August 21, 1999|By Mike Preston | Mike Preston,SUN STAFF

ATLANTA -- In a little more than a week, the Ravens will have gone from the bottom of the NFL to the top.

The Ravens will play the defending NFC champion Atlanta Falcons at 7: 30 tonight at the Georgia Dome. On Aug. 12, the Ravens were in Philadelphia playing the Eagles, a team in transition under a first-year coach and new quarterback.

Tonight, it's the Falcons, a team that lost, 34-19, in Super Bowl XXXIII in January against the Denver Broncos.

"This will be a true test, especially for our defense," said Ravens starting defensive tackle Larry Webster. "They have a veteran team up front. Philly was a team that is reorganizing, but the Falcons went to `The Show' last year. They were in the Super Bowl. They have already established themselves."

This also will be a severe test for the Ravens' West Coast offense, which was sluggish last week in the 10-7 victory over the Eagles. The Falcons had one of the best defenses in the league last season and have a solid core returning, including linebacker Jessie Tuggle, safety Eugene Robinson, cornerback Ray Buchanan and defensive linemen Chuck Smith, Travis Hall and Shane Dronett.

Ravens first-year coach Brian Billick said he expects to play his starters into the second quarter, and No. 1 quarterback Scott Mitchell might play as much as a half depending on the time of possession. Billick wants Mitchell to take at least 25 snaps.

Billick also would like to see an improvement on the interior of his offensive line, especially guards James Atkins and Everett Lindsay and center Jeff Mitchell. Decisions on Atkins, who has been bothered by a strained hamstring, and reserve receiver Brandon Stokley (shoulder) will be made at game time.

For most of this week, Billick has increased the tempo at practice, trying to simulate the Falcons, who defeated the Detroit Lions, 35-31, in their preseason opener last week.

"This is a veteran Atlanta group," said Billick, who lost in overtime to the Falcons, 30-27, in the NFC championship game last season when he was the Minnesota Vikings' offensive coordinator. "They're going to be in and out of the huddle. They already know their offense. They already know who's doing what, and they're going to press our defense at a pace that maybe we didn't see in Philadelphia."

What the Ravens have seen plenty of this week are dropped balls by the receivers. Again. Billick still is looking for someone to emerge as the go-to receiver. Jermaine Lewis has yet to get Billick's endorsement.

There was a positive sign this week in veteran receiver Webster Slaughter, who caught everything thrown to him and beat up on rookie cornerback Chris McAlister, the team's No. 1 draft choice out of Arizona. The Ravens want to find five to six receivers out of 10 in camp.

"As for installing the offense, we're on schedule," Billick said. "We've installed as much here as we did in Minnesota. But are we smooth at running it? Well, that's another question.

"I think Scott has done a good job as far as the fundamentals. We didn't have an interception last week, didn't lose a fumble and hit our hot receivers. Now if we have an interception, lose two fumbles and not hit our hot receivers, then we're in trouble.

"We have to be better on offense than we were a year ago. We will be multiple, and we need to be efficient. We are nowhere close to that yet. We are still thinking about what needs to be done, and we must become intuitive. We aren't sharp. We don't have any rhythm yet. We have to get better."

Defensively, the Ravens are pretty much set. There is competition at defensive tackle, but Webster has solidified his spot as one starter next to Tony Siragusa. The Ravens want to establish themselves as a legitimate power around the league.

Falcons running back Jamal Anderson reported to training camp late and is expected to get limited work. But the Ravens are still using him and the Falcons as a standard.

"I'm sure he will get a couple snaps in," Webster said. "They'll want to get him going. It's nice to get a test from a great back early."

Said Billick: "We're playing a team that is very efficient on offense, featuring one of the best backs in the league in Jamal Anderson. This will be a measuring stick for our first units."

Tonight's game will also mark the debut of kicker Scott Bentley, who is in a duel with veteran Matt Stover. Stover was 1-for-2 on field-goal attempts last week, converting on a 30-yarder that won the game as time expired, but missing on a 32-yarder after a bad snap from second-string snapper Mike Flynn.

"I'm not nervous," Bentley said. "I wanted to kick last week after he missed, but the plan is to alternate after every two kicks. I'm anxious to perform. This is what they pay me to do."

NOTE: Recently acquired quarterback Stoney Case, defensive end Michael McCrary (knee) and outside linebacker Peter Boulware (shoulder) will not play.

Ravens tonight

Preseason opponent: Atlanta Falcons

Site: Georgia Dome, Atlanta

Time: 7: 30

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

Line: Falcons by 4 1/2

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