Ravens' goal: Make history repeat itself

NFL: Halfway through the season, Baltimore bears a 5-3 record and other similarities to the team at this same time last year, which ended with a Super Bowl championship.

Midseason Report


November 08, 2001|By Jamison Hensley | Jamison Hensley,SUN STAFF

The record is the same, the direction is different and the stretch run is eerily familiar.

After surviving another tortuous first-half road trek, the Ravens have reached the midway point of their season with a 5-3 record, identical to last season but with a far more confident feel of the landscape.

At midseason last year, the Ravens were on a two-game skid, dealing with a quarterback change and wallowing in a five-game touchdown drought. Now, they are riding a two-game winning streak, welcoming back injured starting quarterback Elvis Grbac and setting their sights on returning to the Super Bowl rather than simply the end zone.

Like last year, the Ravens will play five of their final eight regular-season games at home. Unlike last year, they can tap into their successful history on such a second-half course.

"I feel much better at 5-3 today, more equipped to take on the second half of the season, more optimistic about what we can do than I did at 5-3 last year," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "It's a no-brainer coming off two big wins over Jacksonville and Pittsburgh.

"Last year, we were hoping that the second half of the season would prove beneficial for us. We know now that it was. We know winning at home can be a strength. Truly, the system and the structure and the way we practiced for a second year in a row bore fruit. With that knowledge, it feels better knowing what we're coming into it. Emotionally, it's easy."

Repeating as Super Bowl champions would be easier if the Ravens' defense regains its overwhelming might.

The Ravens' defense led last year's championship charge with four shutouts and a league 16-game record of 165 points allowed. In eight games this year, the defense has given up 129 points.

The other major difference is turnovers - and the lack thereof. By the halfway point last year, the Ravens forced 24 turnovers. This year's defense has created 13.

"The defense for the most part is playing very well, but they're not as dominant as they were last year," Billick said. "We're a good defense. We're not the best defense yet, but we're certainly capable of that and hopefully we're closing in on that. Now's a good time to do it."

The popular game plan has been to use four to five receivers against this defense and make the Ravens defend in space. But success is not stretching the Ravens wide, but stretching them deep.

Four of the past five touchdowns scored against the Ravens have come on plays of 21 or more yards.

"The big play is the key," Billick said. "Moving the ball consistently against this defense has and continues to be tough. If we can eliminate that big-play aspect of it, you may see more of the definitive style of defensive play that we've had in the past."

Beyond those fixes, the Ravens' defense remains one of the most fearsome. Showing flashes of past excellence, Baltimore ranks third in the league in defense.

Defensive end Michael Mc- Crary is back to his Pro Bowl form with 7 1/2 sacks, defensive tackle Sam Adams is again creating havoc inside, and outside linebacker Peter Boulware is concentrating on inflicting pain on quarterbacks and not his shoulder.

But health has played a role in limiting this year's defense. Six Ravens starters have missed at least one week of practice.

"The perception is that we've been relatively healthy and we've kind of been the opposite of that," defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis said. "We've been a lot more nicked up and injured and have lost a little continuity."

Meanwhile, the offense has been more dramatic than prolific.

The Ravens are 21st in points per game (17.6) but have shown the ability to produce in the clutch. Of their 141 points scored, nearly half - 66 points - have come in the fourth quarter.

"I wouldn't say we're drastically better, but I know we're better," offensive coordinator Matt Cavanaugh said. "I know what our potential is. Last year at 5-3, I wasn't quite sure what our potential was or how we were going to come out of it. Last year at this time, if you had come in, you would have probably found me hiding under my desk."

The slack from losing star running back Jamal Lewis has been taken up by veterans. Shannon Sharpe leads all NFL tight ends with 41 catches, and receiver Qadry Ismail (38 catches for 589 yards) is on pace to set career highs in his ninth NFL year.

The trouble for the offense, ranked seventh in the league, is turnovers. The Ravens have lost eight fumbles and been intercepted 10 times. These mistakes have led to seven of the 13 touchdowns allowed by the defense.

"Believe me, we're not deluded enough to sit here and think we're in the top 10 in offense and therefore we're substantially better," Billick said. "But it does show an indication of what we're capable of doing.

"We're running the ball on the whole better than I thought we would. I think Elvis has given us and will continue to give us what we knew he would - the explosives, the efficiency. I truly don't believe we'll turn the ball over. So, there is not a single reason to not feel better about where we are right now."

Last year's focus was on rebounding. This time, it's on retaining.

Now, the Ravens find out if they can repeat history.

"I think there's a sense that we're right where we want to be," said Grbac, alluding to the Ravens' 14-2 record the past two years in November and December. "If we continue to do what we've done in the past here, play smart and get better as the season goes along, we're right back in the thick of things."

Next for Ravens

Opponent: Tennessee Titans

Site: Adelphia Coliseum, Nashville, Tenn.

When: Monday, 9 p.m.

TV/Radio: Chs. 2, 7/WJFK (1300 AM), WQSR (102.7 FM)

Line: Ravens by 1 1/2

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