Starting over, Boller braces for first test

Second-year quarterback will be center of attention as Ravens open preseason

August 12, 2004|By Jamison Hensley | Jamison Hensley,SUN STAFF

In the friendly confines of training camp, the Ravens have tutored quarterback Kyle Boller on his fundamentals and stressed the importance of staying relaxed in the pocket.

Tonight comes the collision course.

In the preseason opener against the Atlanta Falcons at M&T Bank Stadium, Boller will look to apply all those lessons while taking his first hit in nine months. His appearance - albeit for one quarter - will mark his longest stretch of playing time since he injured his quadriceps on Nov. 9.

"I honestly don't think it was an issue at all," Boller said. "That doesn't cross my mind twice. My body is 100 percent. I wish I could play the whole game. I'm looking forward to that electricity and excitement."

Boller isn't the only one facing pressure tonight. Although the preseason doesn't count, NFL coaches know how much injuries suffered in August can affect the regular season.

It was only a year ago when two prominent quarterbacks - the Falcons' Michael Vick and the New York Jets' Chad Pennington - suffered major injuries in the preseason and their teams failed to recover.

So the Ravens face these questions: How many snaps will get a second-year starter like Boller ready for the season, and how many will expose him too much to injury?

"The only answer to not getting a guy injured is not play him," said offensive coordinator Matt Cavanaugh. "So there's really no answer for us. He has to play. So we don't think about it."

The best protection the Ravens can give is to keep Boller with the starters. That means he will be limited to 15 to 20 plays tonight - which is fewer than the Ravens ideally would want for him - and about 80 plays for the entire preseason.

Kordell Stewart will take over for Boller sometime during the second quarter tonight, and rookie Josh Harris will play most of the second half.

"You want as many looks as you can get," said Boller, who returned after his injury last season to throw one pass in a mop-up role in Week 15. "So when that first game comes, you're cranked up and ready to rock and roll."

The Falcons won't gamble the same way they did against the Ravens last preseason, when Vick broke his leg on a tackle by Adalius Thomas on Atlanta's fourth series. This time, Vick will play just one series.

Asked about last year's Ravens game, Vick said, "I just know I got hurt. My mind-set going into that game wasn't right. This will be a totally different Michael Vick."

The Ravens are looking for a different Boller and passing game, too. They've added receivers through trade (veteran Kevin Johnson) and the draft (third-round pick Devard Darling) to boost the NFL's worst passing attack and the AFC's worst-rated quarterback.

But success for Boller in the preseason has as much to do with composure as completions.

"I'm really going to be watching his demeanor," Cavanaugh said. "Is there a look about him that says, `This game is slowing down for him'? I don't want to see the young rookie in his first couple of games that drops 100 miles an hour back, feet jittery and looking every which way."

Cavanaugh isn't the only one interested in how Boller reacts to the pressure of a pass rush.

"The question for me is: `Am I going to go back to bad mechanics just because it's a game situation?' Those are the things I'm really trying to work on," Boller said. "I want to be a smooth, [Joe] Montana-like quarterback."

Along with evaluating Boller, the Ravens will begin to address questions at right guard, receiver, nickel back and return specialist.

In the only preseason battle for a starting job, right guard Bennie Anderson will go with the first group before giving way to Casey Rabach, who also will play center. The other uncertainty on offense is with the No. 3 receiver spot, a tight race among Darling, Randy Hymes, Ron Johnson and Clarence Moore. Hymes has a slight edge entering the preseason games.

On defense, the Ravens likely will go with Gary Baxter as the nickel back (the fifth defensive back to cover the slot receiver) and move Ray Walls into Baxter's outside cornerback spot. The team has used Ed Reed and Lamont Brightful at nickel back at times in camp.

Brightful will figure more prominently in the battle for return specialist. He is expected to split returns with Derek Abney, a seventh-round draft pick.

The preseason opener also will be a time to greet newcomers such as Johnson and Darling on offense and defensive tackle Dwan Edwards (second round) and pass rusher Roderick Green (fifth round) on defense.

"All I'm nervous about is me wanting to go out there and play well," Edwards said. "Hopefully, I'll get a few shots on the quarterback."

Ravens tonight

Opponent: Atlanta Falcons in preseason opener

Site: M&T Bank Stadium

Time: 8

TV/Radio: Ch. 13, ESPN/WJFK (1300 AM), WQSR (102.7 FM)

Line: Ravens by 3 1/2

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