Prospects again hinge on play of QB, offense

On the Ravens

Nfl Preview 2004

The Ravens

September 09, 2004|By MIKE PRESTON

THE RAVENS made attempts and in most cases achieved everything necessary to upgrade their offense, which should get them back to the NFL playoffs.

But is it enough to take them deep into the postseason and possibly to the Super Bowl?

It all depends on running back Jamal Lewis' legal problems, the development of quarterback Kyle Boller and the passing game, and what teams they'd face in the playoffs.

It has been eight months since the Ravens played in a meaningful game, and even though wholesale personnel moves weren't made, there were enough changes to have a significant impact.

The Ravens brought in a new assistant to breathe some life into the offense, put an old pair of eyes in a new spot, kept continuity on the offensive line and added a possession-type receiver who slowly is emerging as a leader.

They gambled and lost on wide receiver Terrell Owens, a desperately needed vertical threat, but at least it was consistent with the Ravens' thoughts of making a serious Super Bowl run.

But it all may not be enough.

"Our defense has a chance to be special, and we'll be good on special teams," said Ravens coach Brian Billick. "The step from division champs to world champs is significant, but that's the step we have to take. A second season for Kyle is huge in his development. We'll be more balanced on offense, but we aren't going to stray too far from being a dominant running team."

They can't. It would be foolish for the Ravens, who had the league's No. 1 rushing offense last season paced by Lewis' 2,066 yards. Lewis and the Ravens' huge offensive line wear down teams, but Lewis is expected to appear in an Atlanta federal court on drug conspiracy charges Nov. 1. If the Ravens lose Lewis, it changes the dynamics of the offense, but not much.

You can't replace Lewis and what he brings to this team, but the Ravens have two capable backups in Musa Smith and Chester Taylor.

Smith has good size, accelerates well and can run inside or out, but he still runs too upright and lacks discipline and patience on plays designed to stretch the defense.

Taylor, who has become a third-down specialist, is more of a slasher, but at 213 pounds he isn't an every-down back, either.

Together, they make a formidable combination but won't change the profile of this offense. Other teams know that, and the Ravens will get their steady dose of seven, eight and sometimes nine players near the line of scrimmage.

That, of course, brings us to the passing game, which ultimately leads us to Boller. The Ravens brought in former New York Giants coach Jim Fassel to tutor Boller, but Fassel also has had an impact on the overall passing game.

The Ravens are using much more motion to keep defenses off balance and create mismatches. There are more play-action passes, which weren't a major part of the package last season.

The Ravens have made some other good moves. Offensive coordinator Matt Cavanaugh is calling plays from the coaches' box now instead of on the sideline. It should allow him to see more of the game and reduce some of the distractions of dealing with the players.

They signed Kevin Johnson, who played extremely well in the preseason and will become another receiving weapon along with tight end Todd Heap. Just as important, Johnson is smart, has a great understanding of the game and could develop into the type of offensive leader this team hasn't had since Shannon Sharpe.

Maybe the most important change is the shift from a vertical passing game to a true West Coast offense, which is predicated on short, ball-control passes. In other words, the Ravens want to cut down on possible Boller turnovers.

Will that happen?

There are still questions about the offensive line, and even more about Boller. The Ravens re-signed center Mike Flynn and right offensive tackle Orlando Brown in the offseason, which will keep the unit together for a second straight season. As a group, the linemen are great run blockers, but the unit struggled in pass protection last season and this preseason.

Their size is an asset in the running game, but a hindrance as far as pass blocking.

Boller hasn't made much progress since last season. At times, he can flick a pass to the far side of the field with no problem. But at other times he can't find the touch on short passes or just trips over his feet in Keystone Kops fashion.

He has a tendency to revert to bad habits like throwing off his back foot or rushing his footwork while dropping back.

A key will be patience by Boller and Billick. Boller showed signs of cracking under pressure when he played poorly in the first three preseason games, then regrouped with a strong performance in the finale. Billick can't be impulsive and move to a bombs-away approach if the conservative offense isn't working early in the season.

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