"Brian Billick didn't reinvent football. He just calls the plays a different way from other people. We have to understand what that is."
-- Scott Mitchell, Ravens quarterback
The Baltimore Ravens gave Coach Brian Billick an uncommonly generous six-year, $9 million contract eight months ago based on the confidence that, in time, his ideas about motivation and offense will lift them into playoff contention. While quarterback Scott Mitchell and the rest of the offense adjust to his system, Billick will be trying to find ways that allow a potentially dominant defense to shine.
How will Billick try to make that happen?
By going against some of his instincts.
The Ravens will pass -- and Mitchell will fling the ball downfield several times each game, especially if speedy wide receiver Patrick Johnson keeps holding onto the ball. But the overall notion on offense will be conservative, meaning short passes that set up the ground game, assuring field goal tries by avoiding high-risk plays inside the opponent's 20-yard line and, at least as important, running time off the clock.
"You always see great defenses excel if you have enough rest," said Pro Bowl middle linebacker Ray Lewis. "Any time you're on the field as long as we were [much of the past three seasons under former coach Ted Marchibroda] you tend to wear down. Billick has brought that to his program."
Billick considered others to coordinate the defense but decided to retain Marvin Lewis and stay with schemes that had become increasingly sophisticated as young and very talented players began to mature.
Ray Lewis, chosen with the 26th pick in the 1996 draft, made his second trip to the Pro Bowl last season. Outside linebacker Peter Boulware, chosen with the fourth pick in the 1997 draft, also made the Pro Bowl last season, a year after winning NFL defensive rookie of the year honors.
The Ravens had the 10th overall selection in both of the two most recent drafts, and used them to get cornerbacks Duane Starks and Chris McAlister. Starks became a starter on the left side nine games into last season; McAlister is involved in defenses against three wide receivers and pushed right cornerback De Ron Jenkins into having a terrific training camp.
Rod Woodson has moved to free safety after 12 enormously successful seasons at cornerback and should help the young cornerbacks and linebackers. The transition has not been as smooth as Woodson anticipated, but he expects his timing on pass coverage and run support to quicken.
"Everything still starts with us up front," tackle Larry Webster said of a defensive line both talented and deep. "If we can get that rush, what's a quarterback to do? He could throw it away early. He could throw it to a [defensive back]. Or he could take a sack."
In prior years, quarterbacks frequently threw completions against a collection of too-slow Baltimore defensive backs.
That pass rush depends heavily on the health of Boulware and defensive end Michael McCrary, who had 14A sacks last season -- second in the AFC -- and has 35 in his past 38 regular season games. Boulware missed all but the final preseason game with a shoulder injury he suffered on the last day of a minicamp in late June. Shoulder problems hampered his progress much of last season.
McCrary had knee surgery in mid-March and also was scheduled to make his preseason debut in the final game. But because he left the team for two days last week because of contract issues and missed valuable practice time, McCrary did not play in that game against the New York Giants. Still, he has been going at full speed for most of the past two weeks and is regarded as the team's hardest worker.
With the exception of Webster replacing James Jones, who left for the Detroit Lions via free agency, and Woodson moving to safety, the defense has remained the same. For good reason, Billick all but blew up the offense during the offseason.
New are all three quarterbacks, Mitchell, the starter, backup Tony Banks, and Stoney Case, who might challenge the frequently erratic Banks in time. Running backs Priest Holmes and Errict Rhett return and should benefit from the addition of free agent signee Chuck Evans at fullback.
Much of last season's 6-10 record was the fault of an underachieving offensive line. Two of the players blamed by management, guard Wally Williams and right tackle Orlando Brown, were allowed to sign lucrative free agent contracts with the New Orleans Saints and Cleveland Browns, respectively.
The line play was much better this preseason, in part because of the addition of veteran right tackle Harry Swayne and versatile Everett Lindsay, who is expected to become the starter at left guard or center.
After a dreadful start in camp, the wide receivers became efficient enough for Billick to have a tough time making the final cuts.
"The difference is that they have a comfort zone," Billick said. "They know where they're supposed to be, and that allows them to focus on their skills and fundamentals a little bit more. It's very encouraging."
All the players who figure to be most involved at tight end or H-back also are new. Lovett Purnell, acquired from the New England Patriots for a sixth-round draft choice, is a better all-around tight end than Aaron Pierce. But Pierce, who sat out all last season after a contract dispute with the New York Giants, has the rare ability to go deep.
Free agent Greg DeLong, who played for the Minnesota Vikings when Billick was their offensive coordinator, mans the blocker-receiver role of H-back and also is important in the clubhouse. He was mostly responsible for one of the hits of camp -- an ugly-man contest based on unflattering pictures that had appeared in publications that was won by Billick.
The major question, on offense and special teams, is how long wide receiver-punt returner Jermaine Lewis stays healthy. As has happened all too frequently in the regular season during his three years with the Ravens, he had a fine performance in the second exhibition game and then missed the next week of practice and the following game with an injury.
Lewis made the Pro Bowl last season after averaging 12.7 yards on 32 punt returns, including two for touchdowns. As a wide receiver, Lewis had six touchdowns last season and five were of at least 46 yards.
"I'll be trying to make even more big plays," Lewis said. "I'm also trying to learn how to take care of my body during the season. Maintenance things, like lots of ice."
Throughout most of the preseason, the special teams played poorly. The problems included penalties, a couple of muffs and tackling.
"We've got to make a solid fundamental tackle instead of diving at people," said special teams coach Russ Purnell.
The overall goal for the kicking teams, Purnell said, is to win field position. For instance, he wants the Ravens to return kickoffs to at least the 30-yard line and to keep opponents from returning kickoffs to the 25. Kickoffs have been shorter than Purnell would like, but that's been common throughout the league.
Much of the pressure this season will be on veterans such as Mitchell and Pro Bowl tackle Jonathan Ogden.
"We have a lot more things to keep people guessing," Ogden said. "Everything seems more crisp. [Billick] seems real confident, real sure of himself. That's definitely a good sign."