In his first two seasons, Peter Boulware started with a flourish, winning NFL defensive rookie of the year honors, and worked his way up to the Pro Bowl. This season, if his balky shoulder permits, he is confident of becoming a complete outside linebacker rather than a pass rusher.
"He adds that much more," said middle linebacker Ray Lewis. "It might be going after the passer one play and dropping back into coverage the next. Just the myth that he's Peter Boulware changes people's whole game plan when he's in there."
Trouble is, Boulware's shoulder kept him from being as dominant as possible last season. It also popped out of its socket during the final day of a minicamp in late June and caused Boulware to gradually work into practices in training camp and to miss the first three preseason games.
Boulware did not miss a start last season and, with his shoulder strapped in place during many games, managed 8A sacks. He missed nearly all of training camp as a rookie while negotiating a contract and still had 11A sacks.
"The shoulder keeps getting stronger, so I'm hopeful," Boulware said. "I've gotten used to the system enough so that, hopefully, I won't be thinking so much in situations that call for instant reaction. I'll know it entirely this season."
The cornerstone in Baltimore's rebuilt offense is Scott Mitchell, who has not thrown a pass in a regular season game since being benched by the Lions two games into the 1998 season. But each appearance in Baltimore's four preseason games has produced a more fluid attack.
"There are so many subtleties in Brian Billick's offense that it takes a while to get comfortable," said wide receiver Qadry Ismail, who played with the Vikings when Billick was that team's offensive coordinator.
"He's got the basics down -- and surely will get better."
Timing with a collection of wide receivers unfamiliar not only with Billick's offense but also with the Ravens has been a major adjustment for Mitchell. Billick regarded the third preseason game, against the Panthers, as the most important -- and was pleased with how Mitchell directed the two-minute drill just before halftime.
After that third game, Mitchell glanced around the locker room, at some older players eager to hang on as long as possible and at some Ravens who have experienced a 16-31-1 record in three years.
"I don't think people can measure what all of us have been through in our careers, what we feel about this opportunity," he said. "I really feel like we're going to surprise a lot of people. I think we're going to be put in position to make plays-and that we'll be a really good football team."