Baltimore Ravens Coach Brian Billick plans to improve on his team's poor 1998 record by focusing on the defense.
"We must be efficient on offense," Billick said. "That means not turning the ball over and scoring at least a field goal when we [get inside the opponent's 20-yard line]. If we do that, with what I think we're going to be able to do on defense, I think we're going to have an impact."
Billick and his staff are optimistic because most of their key defenders are young enough and good enough to absorb more sophisticated schemes. Middle linebacker Ray Lewis (fourth year), outside linebacker Peter Boulware (third year) and defensive end Michael McCrary (seventh year) made the Pro Bowl last season.
"What the extra year means is that we'll be a lot less hesitant," McCrary said. "We'll be a reacting defense instead of a thinking and then reacting defense."
However, injuries are a concern. McCrary had knee surgery more than five months ago and Boulware's shoulder popped out of its socket on the final day of a mid-June minicamp, and neither has healed sufficiently to allow the players to endure a serious practice. McCrary may not play at all until the final preseason game.
The Ravens also are concerned that McCrary will not sign a new contract before the season. With 35 sacks in his last 38 games, McCrary would be one of the most coveted free agents next year. He signed with the Ravens as an unrestricted free agent from the Seattle Seahawks two years ago.
"I went through that [negotiating during the season] with Seattle," he said, "and it was a distraction for me. It has nothing to do with being [unreasonable with management]. It's just that I believe in concentrating only on football during the season."
The Ravens have Boulware under contract for four more years, but are worried about the frequent shoulder dislocations.
"Peter basically played 14 games [with his shoulder heavily taped to keep it in place] like this last year," defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis said. "Whatever fashion he comes back in, that's how he's going to have to play. If it's in a strapped-down position, then we want him to get in and work with it that way."
During the offseason, 12-year veteran Rod Woodson moved from cornerback to safety and Larry Webster was elevated to starter at one tackle position after standout James Jones was allowed to leave via free agency.
"Rod gives us another strong communicator on the field in a position to communicate even more," Lewis said, alluding to the safety calling many of the defensive changes just before the snap. "We've also changed the huddle, putting him in the middle with Ray to try and play on those skills. And we'll be counting on his ability to play the ball, keep the ball in front of us, which is where it belongs."
The Ravens are certain that first-round draft choice Chris McAlister belongs in the starting lineup at right cornerback. He already mans the position in formations against three wide receivers, with right cornerback DeRon Jenkins moving into the slot.
This was the second straight draft the Ravens used their first-round choice on a cornerback. Duane Starks moved into the starting lineup in the ninth game last season, but might have sooner had he not missed about two weeks of camp negotiating a contract. McAlister has not missed a snap.
"You can see a big difference in Duane now," Lewis said. "McAlister is getting his feet under him, has a pretty good understanding of what we're doing."
* Ravens Note: Seventh-round draft choice Anthony Poindexter ended his two-day holdout by agreeing to a contract that includes a signing bonus of less than $20,000, a team source said. The Virginia safety will continue rehabilitation on a severe knee injury Saturday.