For Ravens, postseason is not out of question


September 09, 2006|By MIKE PRESTON

Like just about every team in the National Football League, the Ravens have a realistic shot to make the postseason, but it's an uphill battle.

Despite the addition of quarterback Steve McNair, there are a lot of things going against the Ravens. Coach Brian Billick is on the hot seat, and trying to re-invent himself for a second straight season. The schedule is tough, and several high-profile players including linebacker Ray Lewis, running back Jamal Lewis, cornerback Samari Rolle and McNair have missed extensive time in recent years because of injuries.

There are also questions about the interior lines, especially the right side of the offensive line.

But don't get too depressed. The Ravens have their share of positives. McNair, safety Ed Reed and both Jamal and Ray Lewis are healthy again. McNair finally gives the Ravens a confident quarterback who is also accurate, has pocket awareness and can make big plays. He also has a complete set of weapons in receivers Mark Clayton and Derrick Mason and tight end Todd Heap.

Just as important, for the first time in three years the Ravens head into the regular season without a lot of issues. Reed got a new contract, and so did Jamal Lewis. The Ravens gave Ray Lewis a big defensive tackle in rookie Haloti Ngata, and the quarterback he coveted, McNair.

Most of the problems that have haunted the Ravens recently were put on the table by owner Steve Bisciotti in February and addressed.

Overall, there is a good feeling surrounding this team.

But the AFC North is a tough division. As long as Carson Palmer quarterbacks the Cincinnati Bengals, they can put up 30 points on any day. With or without quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, the Steelers are right up there with the Bengals.

A possible postseason berth for the Ravens might come down to the final week, and for that to happen, the Ravens have to stay healthy.

Jamal Lewis is focused, as opposed to last year at this time when he thought team officials had reneged on a promise of a new, multi-year contract.

Actually, in May and June, Lewis wasn't thrilled with the new, three-year, $26 million contract he signed in March, either. That's when he finally learned the deal was basically a one-year agreement worth $6 million.

But that's over, too. Lewis is aware he can't afford another season like 2005 when he rushed for only 906 yards on 269 carries. If that happens, there won't be many offers after the season. Again. If he has a big season, he'll have numerous offers, possibly one from the Ravens wanting to offer an extension.

Part of the reason that McNair has been reluctant to go downfield is that he is still learning the offense. Until he becomes more comfortable, he is content on throwing short, safe passes, a team official said.

That was great in preseason, but there needs to be an adjustment to his learning curve by tomorrow when the Ravens open the season against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

McNair has been hesitant and slow on some of his releases, but he won't have a lot of time to throw against the Bucs, who had the top-ranked defense a season ago.

"Our offense is about executing the game plan and taking pressure off our defense," McNair said. "I'm comfortable with our offense. I like what the coaches are asking me to do. It gives us a chance to sustain drives and hit big plays."

According to several players, Billick is going out of his way to adhere to changes that Bisciotti strongly advocated at the end of last season.

One of those changes is to communicate more with all the players as opposed to a few chosen favorites. Now, he's striking up conversations with almost anyone.

The players say Billick is not being phony, but appears sincere. It would be interesting to see Billick's response if Terrell Suggs or Chris McAlister kissed him like Pittsburgh linebacker Joey Porter put one on Steelers coach Bill Cowher on Thursday night.

There will be a lot of eyes, especially from the player personnel department, on the Ravens defensive line tomorrow. The Ravens have invested a lot of money in Ngata and ends Trevor Pryce and Dan Cody during the past two years.

Ngata started off well but hasn't played at that level since suffering a leg injury early in training camp. Second-year player Cody missed all of last season with a knee injury, so he's basically still a rookie. Like Ngata, Cody has potential, but appears uncomfortable and hesitant about his responsibilities in the scheme.

Pryce is a finesse player. He didn't make much of an impression in training camp, and that's not unusual for a 10-year veteran. But now that the season is about to start, the Ravens will find out if Pryce's training camp was an aberration or the norm.

We would love to be a fly on the wall in some of the meetings involving offensive coordinator Jim Fassel and quarterbacks coach Rick Neuheisel. Apparently, some pretty good verbal jousting has taken place about who really calls the plays, and about what worked in college and won't work in the pros.

Neuheisel became more involved with the offense during the offseason while Fassel was being interviewed for head coaching jobs. Billick had said Neuheisel would become the team's offensive coordinator if Fassel became a head coach.

It didn't happen, and Fassel reclaimed his job. The two have had their differences, which is nothing new.

It's pretty standard stuff around the league, without some of the barbs.

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