Key Issues

September 07, 2001|By JAMISON HENSLEY

Biggest concern

Running back. When Jamal Lewis went down with a season-ending knee injury, the Ravens went from a one-man gang to a three-back support group. They can't afford to wear out Terry Allen, and they can't risk depending on Jason Brookins too much. The wild card of the group is Moe Williams, a longtime backup who will jump into the rotation. The Ravens won't abandon the run, but they need to see some signs of life.

Strongest position

Linebacker. Ray Lewis is the complete player, Jamie Sharper is the clutch playmaker and Peter Boulware is the fearsome pass rusher. Collectively, this group is the pulse of the suffocating defense. In many ways, Boulware is seen as a newcomer, entering his first regular season healthy since 1998. He's another weapon that has to be accounted for this season, making the defense more dangerous than a year ago.

Unit on the hot seat

Offensive line. Injuries and questions have continually haunted this group. The left side - tackle Jonathan Ogden and guard Edwin Mulitalo - is powerful when healthy, but the rest of the line is shaky when pressured. Mike Flynn, who has moved from right guard to center, is making the right calls but needs to prove he can physically handle the position. Right guard Kipp Vickers assumes his first full-time starting job of his seven-year career, but he has always been more valuable as backup who can plug in at guard or tackle. At right tackle, NFL Europe alumnus Sammy Williams will start the first couple of games before giving way to former Dallas Cowboy Erik Williams.

Unpredictable unit

Receivers. With Elvis Grbac at quarterback, the receivers have no more excuses about production. Qadry Ismail's receptions dropped from 68 in 1999 to 49 last season. Brandon Stokley is unproven over a full season, with only 12 receptions in two years. And Travis Taylor, the 10th player taken overall in the 2000 draft, could establish himself this season if he shakes some lingering rookie mistakes.

Combo to watch

Kicker Matt Stover and punter Kyle Richardson. They represent the veteran presence on special teams and can alleviate the team's concerns with its youth movement there. While players like Todd Heap, Gary Baxter, Alan Ricard, Alvin Porter and Ed Hartwell are more athletic than their predecessors on coverage teams, they are more prone to mistakes, too. That means an added importance to Stover's distance on kickoffs and Richardson's ability to angle kicks deep into the opponent's territory.

Crucial draft pick

Long snapper Joe Maese. In the preseason, the sixth-round pick out of New Mexico did not make the Ravens hold their breath, exhibiting a quick and accurate delivery. By opting to go with Maese, the Ravens did not have to keep veterans Frank Wainright or John Hudson, saving about $200,000. The Ravens don't think that move will end up costing them in the end.

Breakout performer

Cornerback Chris McAlister. A first-round pick in 1999, McAlister has the tools to shut down receivers. His development will be tested against the likes of Minnesota's Randy Moss, Tampa Bay's Keyshawn Johnson, Indianapolis' Marvin Harrison, Denver's Rod Smith and Ed McCaffrey and Jacksonville's Jimmy Smith and Keenan McCardell. But McAlister has never been one to shy away from the spotlight.

Best relocation

Return specialist Jermaine Lewis. The former Maryland standout has never clicked in coach Brian Billick's offensive scheme, and making him focus on punt and kickoff returns serves everyone's best interests. With more chances in the open field, he is a bigger threat to change games in a blink. Lewis was never that dangerous as a receiver.

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