At A Glance

September 07, 2001|By Jamison Hensley

Last season: 12-4, second place in AFC Central; beat New York Giants, 34-7, in Super Bowl XXXV.

Coach: Brian Billick (20-12), third season with Ravens.

Strength of schedule: The Ravens are tied for the 13th toughest in the NFL and second toughest in the division behind Tennessee. Ravens opponents went a combined 128-128 last year. They'll face seven teams that had winning seasons in 2000, and six that went to the playoffs. The most formidable stretch includes six of eight on the road, spanning from the end of September to early November. Once they get through that, the Ravens will end the season with four of the final six regular-season games at home.

Starting QB (W-L): Elvis Grbac (31-23).

Best move: Bucking the trend and becoming the first Super Bowl champion to willingly replace its starting quarterback. Although Trent Dilfer was the sentimental choice, the Ravens' decision to sign Grbac was a no-brainer. In only three preseason games, he has shown a consistent touch on his throws and an ability to stretch the field that was nonexistent in Dilfer.

Weakest link: The Ravens lost their only irreplaceable piece on offense when running back Jamal Lewis went down with a season-ending knee injury. To make matters worse, their projected backup - fifth-round pick Chris Barnes - was a bust. The Ravens are begrudgingly set to go with a running back-by-committee of Terry Allen, Jason Brookins and Moe Williams, which is the only game plan available to Billick. Fullback Obafemi Ayanbadejo will be used as the single back in passing situations. The Ravens likely won't repeat as a top-five running attack, so they might have to become more one-dimensional and rely on the passing game to produce points.

Pressure's on: The offensive line. Anchoring the left side is All-Pro tackle Jonathan Ogden and reliable guard Edwin Mulitalo. Beyond that, the line has lots of room for improvement. Without the tackle-breaking Lewis in the backfield, center Mike Flynn, right guard Kipp Vickers and right tackle Sammy Williams have to get a better push off the line than they did in the preseason.

Biggest question: Will the addition of Grbac offset the loss of Lewis? Grbac's efficiency on short and intermediate routes is expected to lessen the impact from Lewis' absence. If that proves right, the defense won't be asked to carry the team as it did last year. If that fails to work, Ray Lewis and the gang will have to dig in again.

Key statistic: Virtually every number associated with the defense. The Ravens set the league 16-game mark for fewest points (165) and fewest rushing yards (970) allowed. But the most popular number is 10, the number starters returning from last season's defense.

Ticket to New Orleans: The bandwagon became extremely lighter when Jamal Lewis went down. But don't underestimate this defense. The Ravens' record-setting crew recorded four shutouts and held teams to one or no touchdown in 12 games, expecting as well as receiving little support from the offense. That mentality - and hunger - hasn't worn off.

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