10 Questions

Nfl Preview 2004

The Ravens

September 09, 2004|By JAMISON HENSLEY

1. Has quarterback Kyle Boller improved this year?

It depends on what part of his game you're analyzing. The biggest jump made by Boller in preseason was ball security, which might be more important to the team's success than his fundamentals and accuracy. Despite faulty pass protection, the second-year starter didn't panic and force his throws.

Boller may have wanted to show more patience in the pocket -- he sometimes opted to run too quickly -- but the end result is he was picked off once in 50 attempts (which averages out to eight or nine for a season) and didn't lose a fumble.

The rest of his development has been marked by mixed reviews. Strides have been made with his mechanics, but his accuracy remains a streaky endeavor.

2. Will running back Jamal Lewis play the entire season?

The NFL's Offensive Player of the Year is scheduled to stand trial on Nov. 1--- right in the middle of the season -- on federal drug conspiracy charges. Although there are no indications that the case will be delayed, there is still a chance it could be pushed back to after the season.

If the trial occurs during the season, the Ravens seem to be leaning toward not playing the power running back during that expected 10- to 14-day period.

Losing Lewis for any amount of time takes out a huge chunk of the offense (he represented 46 percent last season).

The Ravens, however, are confident they can temporarily patch up the running game by splitting the carries between capable backups Chester Taylor and Musa Smith.

3. How dominant can this defense become?

The bet here is this defense will lead the NFL in points allowed, total yards and turnovers, a trifecta that slipped the grasp of the great 2000 team.

This group has more speed, more athleticism and more balance than 2000, yet it remains to be seen whether it can create the same defiant aura.

That veteran group had a swagger and drive that only comes with years of chasing that elusive Super Bowl. This defense can be outstanding statistically, but its predecessor did things that can't be recorded on paper -- it broke the wills of offenses.

4. When will linebacker Peter Boulware return?

There are no guarantees when or if the four-time Pro Bowl player will come back this season. His rehabilitation from offseason knee surgery is admittedly the biggest challenge of an injury-marred career. He is on the physically unable to perform list, which means he will not practice for the first six weeks of the season. Because the legs are so vital to a speed rusher, he won't be effective unless he is fully recovered. Adalius Thomas is an adequate replacement at outside linebacker, but he doesn't command the same respect as a pass rusher.

5. Can cornerback Chris McAlister repeat his performance?

That's the $7.1 million question for the team's franchise player. By keeping him on a year-to-year arrangement, it forces McAlister to play at an All-Pro level to keep his market value high for whenever he reaches free agency.

He came into his own last season, living up to expectations as a shut-down cornerback, and should return as the same fearsome defender despite missing all of training camp.

But the Ravens have to be careful because there could be a time soon when McAlister will hit a breaking point with continually being given the franchise tag.

6. How much of an impact will special teams have?

The coverage teams will remain one of the best in the NFL, continually pinning teams deep in their territory. Offenses will need to go the length of the field to get into scoring position, a major reason why the defense should lead the league in points allowed.

What makes the special teams so strong is they have a number of athletes such as Thomas, Bart Scott and Gerome Sapp who have the speed to chase down returners and the physical nature to bring them down.

The return game hinges on the development of B.J. Sams, the undrafted rookie who is the shiftiest runner on the team.

7. Can Terrell Suggs be an every-down linebacker?

Suggs has quietly and smoothly made positives steps in his transition from college defensive end.

His physical play against the run has inspired cautious optimism that he has finally absorbed the new position.

The move was a disaster last season, as the out-of-shape rookie looked lost and winded, forcing him to be a pass-rushing specialist.

His new dedication was evident from the first minicamp, when he reported 10 pounds lighter.

Over the next couple of years, he is expected to be more of a complete linebacker than Boulware, whose coverage ability often made coaches cringe.

8. Will the passing game make a substantial leap this year?

Judging by the preseason, it'll be more of a hop than a leap for last year's lowest-ranked passing team.

Tailoring the game plan around a young quarterback like Boller, the basis of the passing attack will be shorter, quicker routes to receivers (such as sure-handed newcomer Kevin Johnson) along with play-action plays in which Boller rolls out into space for high-percentage throws.

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