Start is lukewarm, but there's a spark

NFL: The Ravens have met most expectations with a 2-2 record, making small strides under first-year coach Brian Billick and showing a bit of attitude adjustment with their emotional play.

Ravens quarterly review

October 07, 1999|By Mike Preston | Mike Preston,SUN STAFF

The Ravens' formula for winning games won't be pretty for the rest of the 1999 season, except maybe when they play the Cincinnati Bengals. If you want explosive offenses, turn to the Washington Redskins or Green Bay Packers. If you want great defense, watch the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

The Ravens are mudders, a team that has to scratch and fight for victories with a defense that sometimes borders on greatness and an offense that still is searching for an identity under first-year coach Brian Billick. The Ravens are 2-2 and have pretty much fulfilled reasonable expectations.

They entered the season without a proven quarterback or a go-to receiver, and they still don't have either. They knew their defense would be solid, and so far it's ranked No. 8 in the league. As for the explosive plays, Billick has gotten just enough to win two games thanks to reborn running back Errict Rhett and an occasional deep pass.

But now the Ravens enter the toughest part of the schedule, with Tennessee (twice), Kansas City, Buffalo and Jacksonville (twice) among the next eight opponents. The stretch also includes road trips to Cleveland on Nov. 7 and Cincinnati on Nov. 21.

"In this last game, we did not turn the ball over," Billick said of the Ravens' 19-13 overtime victory against the Atlanta Falcons. "If that continues, that's going to be a huge plus. If we can maintain the same productivity out of the running game that we've had in the first four games, it will enhance our profile of what we're going to be about. Offensively, our next step is to find some efficiency in our passing game on both first and third down.

"Defensively, it's pretty simple. Can we progress and continue to play well as team? We know we have the individuals, but can we play and develop the core mentality that the good defenses have when they are playing well? Our communication, particularly on the back end, has to become more instinctive between the safety and corners and corners with safeties. That's also true for the linebackers and defensive line."

Realistically, the Ravens aren't playoff-bound because they have too many holes. The most interesting story of this season is Billick and how he'll mature as a head coach. So far, he has handled himself well, especially for a coach with a team low on offensive talent.

So far he hasn't panicked or pointed any fingers. His demeanor is pleasant and he hasn't deviated from the systems he installed along with defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis.

Oh, Billick has made some mistakes. He wants to have total control, was a little reluctant to go to the running game at the beginning of the season and overestimated the maturity level of this team heading into the season opener against the St. Louis Rams. He expected more from a team that had been somewhat mollified after complaining in the past about such things as the long practices of former coach Ted Marchibroda.

Billick had shorter practices, though they were within his framework. He didn't impose a curfew in training camp. He installed an unpredictable offense, which the team didn't have under the previous regime. And then the Ravens gave him a 27-10 loss to the Rams.

It might have been a culture shock for Billick, who had a veteran team last year as offensive coordinator of the Minnesota Vikings.

"The biggest surprise to me is that I constantly have to remind myself of just how young this team is," Billick said. "Ray Lewis [middle linebacker] is the perfect example. Because of his incredible ability and production, and because he is the heart and soul of this team, you think he has been through all of this and seen certain situations before.

"You think of him being a veteran, but you forget how young he is and that there are a lot of new situations for him. It's the same with Jonathan Ogden [offensive tackle].

Billick downplays being a motivator, saying it has to come from within each player. But he plays the game well. He shows his teams excerpts from certain films. The stare he gave kicker Matt Stover after he missed a 38-yard field-goal attempt against the Falcons was intimidating, and the move to sign possible replacement Joe Nedney two days later was motivating.

Billick occasionally uses the old trick of ripping the print media in front of his players to promote an "us against them" them mentality.

His emotion is starting to emerge through his players on the field. Right offensive tackle Harry Swayne took a swipe at a Cleveland player after he took a cheap shot at quarterback Stoney Case. That never happened here before. Or how about Rhett throwing upper cuts like pro wrestler Goldberg after a big run last Sunday?

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