Ten Questions

Reviewing the Ravens

September 08, 2005|By Jamison Hensley | Jamison Hensley,Sun Staff

1. Will Kyle Boller establish himself as a legitimate starting QB?

That's the question on the minds of everyone in the Ravens' organization. Based on the end of last season, there is reason to believe he can turn the corner. Based on this preseason, there is no reason to believe he can last the entire year.

The only definitive statement that can be made about Boller is that this is a pivotal season.

By NFL standards, the third season is when a team should be able to tell if a quarterback can succeed at this level. There are certainly no more excuses for Boller.

The Ravens signed free-agent receiver Derrick Mason, drafted receiver Mark Clayton in the first round and hired Jim Fassel as offensive coordinator. Only time will tell whether Boller will validate the Ravens' unwavering confidence in him.

2. What will new coordinator Rex Ryan bring to the defense?

He will bring the unexpected. The Ravens will disguise their looks, switching back and forth from the 4-3 alignment to the famed 46 scheme used by Ryan's father, Buddy, in the 1980s.

The only constant will be the pressure brought by the Ravens, even though teams won't know which player is coming.

The Ravens have the speed and agility to harass quarterbacks, from Terrell Suggs to Adalius Thomas to Peter Boulware to Tommy Polley.

Ryan can risk sending wave after wave of blitzes because he has two of the league's best cover cornerbacks (Chris McAlister and Samari Rolle) and the game's top defensive playmaker (safety Ed Reed).

The attacking style of defense should generate plenty of sacks and turnovers. This might not be the most dominant defense in the NFL anymore, but it could be the most dangerous.

3. How much will the offense still focus on RB Jamal Lewis?

Even with the new toys in the passing game, the Ravens have preached balance on offense.

By season's end, they want 500 pass attempts and 500 carries, 350 of which they aim to give to Lewis. If he keeps to his 4.7-yard career average, he should gain more than 1,600 yards. Should Boller struggle, Lewis might have to carry the offense like he did in 2003. He certainly should be up to the task, given his desire for a new contract.

4. Will Ed Reed repeat as the NFL Defensive Player of the Year?

The odds say no. Before Reed (above), the last safety to win the league's top defensive award was the Seattle Seahawks' Kenny Easley in 1984. Still, there's no disputing that Reed will continue to have a major impact on games. He has had that special knack for being around the ball, whether on defense or special teams, since he stepped onto the field in 2002. This year should be no different.

5. Can the problems in pass protection be corrected?

Fassel's mantra has been to protect the ball and protect the quarterback. If Boller gets hit like he did in the preseason, Fassel won't hesitate to go to maximum protection. When he was with the New York Giants, Fassel once kept seven blockers (sending only three receivers out) on 32 of 35 pass plays against the blitz-happy Philadelphia Eagles. Nevertheless, the Ravens' offensive line remains a concern. Four starters are at least 30 and coming off injuries. The biggest trouble spot is at right tackle, where the Ravens will rotate Orlando Brown with Tony Pashos.

6. What impact will Mark Clayton have on the passing game?

He won't be a prime target at first. The Ravens want to ease their first-round draft pick into the offense, using him in the slot in their three-wide sets.

He drew Brian Billick's anger by missing the first week of training camp but quickly got back into the coach's favor by showing flashes of brilliance.

He has the ability to shake defenders in the open field, which has been nonexistent in the Ravens' offense for years. If Clarence Moore continues to drop passes, Clayton appears ready to latch onto a starting role.

7. What's the nickel back plan with Dale Carter and Deion Sanders?

With this tandem having combined for 12 Pro Bowl appearances, the Ravens feel this is a position of strength. But Carter is 35 and Sanders 38, so the Ravens know they'll have to rotate them to avoid wearing them out.

Carter probably will receive more playing time throughout the year. He earned the right to be the No. 3 cornerback because of his tireless workouts during the offseason at the Ravens' complex.

8. What does a healthy Todd Heap mean to the offense?

It means Boller gets back his most trusted receiver. So don't think that the addition of playmakers on the outside will cause the Ravens to forget about their tight end, especially in the red zone. Remember how valuable Jeremy Shockey was to Fassel's offense with the Giants.

9. Can Ray Lewis once again strike fear in running backs?

Lewis might not be able to lay a lick on them the way he used to, but the middle linebacker can still chase them down. That's why the Ravens made the switch back to a four-man front.

With more players stacked on the line -- and 350-pound space eater Maake Kemoeatu in the middle -- Lewis won't have to take on as many blockers. Now, he can take on the critics who say he's on the downside of his career.

10. Will this be another season of disappointment, or have the Ravens done enough to get back to the playoffs?

On paper, all the pieces are in place for the Ravens to make another Super Bowl run. Their defense is certainly playoff-caliber. Their running game remains one of the NFL's best. If their passing attack finds a way to click, the Ravens could be among the teams to beat in the AFC.

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