5 Questions for the Ravens

September 07, 2006|By JAMISON HENSLEY | JAMISON HENSLEY,SUN REPORTER

1. Where will Steve McNair have the most impact?

In the locker room and in the red zone. When the Ravens traded for their new quarterback in June, they couldn't have asked for a better boost of confidence for the players. Fans should notice McNair's presence when the Ravens get closer to the goal line, where his poise and playmaking ability should help solve the team's traditional red-zone problems.

2. Will the Ravens have an elite defense?

The Ravens finished No. 5 in the NFL last season despite playing a chunk of the season without linebacker Ray Lewis and safety Ed Reed. With two former NFL Defensive Players of the Year back, it's safe to think the Ravens will be among the best on defense again this season. Still, to truly be recognized as a dominant defense, the Ravens need to force more than last year's turnover total (26), their fewest since 1998.

3. Are the Ravens concerned about their offensive line?

The Ravens publicly have stood by this unit, but they have to be privately second-guessing why they didn't make any changes to the weakest part of last year's team. Judging by the preseason, the offensive line will look solid against average defensive fronts but struggle against the more physical ones.

4. What can be expected from Ray Lewis?

Although Lewis has embraced the leadership role with vigor, no one knows how the centerpiece of the defense will play on the field this season. Whether because of rust or age, Lewis was virtually nonexistent in the preseason. The Ravens desperately need Lewis to look like the linebacker of old this season, when they face a top-15 rusher in 12 of 16 games.

5. Will the Ravens make the playoffs?

Despite playing in one of the toughest divisions in football, the Ravens have the experience, the leadership and - finally - the quarterback to return them to the postseason. No longer do the Ravens have to rely solely on their defense to win games. Barring injuries (particularly to McNair), the Ravens' playoff drought will end this season.

On the hot seat

Ravens Preview

Coach Brian Billick / / Many consider this a make-or-break season for the Super Bowl-winning coach. In fact, USA Today set the odds for Billick's firing or retirement at 7-1, which is trumped only by Tennessee's Jeff Fisher and San Diego's Marty Schottenheimer.

Running back Jamal Lewis / / After his career season (2,066 yards) in 2003, Lewis has totaled 1,912 yards the past two seasons. The pressure is on to end this decline.

Cornerback Chris McAlister / / There were rumblings that team officials were extremely dissatisfied with McAlister's lackluster effort last season. The Ravens are paying him to be a No. 1 cover man and they expect him to play like one.

On the rebound

Offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden / / His play dropped off in 2005, but few linemen are better than Ogden. Ravens fans had better savor this future Hall of Fame lineman because no one knows when he'll call it quits.

Safety Ed Reed / / After making 21 interceptions his first three seasons, Reed picked off just one pass last season. If the chemistry and communication improves in the secondary, Reed should stand out again.

Linebacker Dan Cody / / Cody, who missed all of last season with a knee injury, is looking more comfortable in his pass-rush role. He needs to produce about seven or eight sacks because offenses will be putting most of their attention on Terrell Suggs.

Set to break out

Return man B.J. Sams / / He finished second in the NFL in punt returns last season but might be on track for a better year. Special teams coach Frank Gansz Jr., who tutored Dante Hall in Kansas City, could make Sams a more consistent threat.

Tight end Todd Heap / / It's difficult to place Heap in this category because he has been named to two Pro Bowls. But he'll probably break all his career marks with Steve McNair, who loves throwing to his tight ends.

Outside linebacker Bart Scott / / He is a favorite to break out as well as to break a running back in half. In his first preseason as a full-time starter, Scott delivered a couple of the hardest hits by the Ravens' defense.

Impact rookies

Safety Dawan Landry / / Some fifth-round picks get cut; Landry gets to start. Because of his size, he should play close to the line of scrimmage, leaving Reed to play more as a center fielder.

Defensive tackle Haloti Ngata / / Much of the Ravens' success in stopping the run will depend on how their first-round pick handles himself in the trenches.

Punter Sam Koch / / The sixth-round pick averaged 51.6 yards the last two preseason games. The Ravens would be ecstatic if he finished in the top half of the league.

Jamison Hensley

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