It's too early to say Baltimore cannot afford to lose tonight. But judging by the businesslike, sometimes tense, atmosphere in practice this week, the Stallions are preparing for their home opener against the San Antonio Texans with a must-win mind-set.
Baltimore began the season as the clear favorite to win the Canadian Football League's Southern Division, and the Stallions talked that way last week. Then, the B.C. Lions threw cold water in their faces by handing them a 37-34 defeat. Baltimore helped the Lions by breaking down on offense, defense and especially on special teams, giving up important field position by allowing 312 return yards.
"We've had way more intense, focused practices this week," Baltimore coach Don Matthews said. "Our mental preparation last week was not sufficient, and that includes the coaches. We feel badly about the way we played in Vancouver, and we're anxious to get back out there."
"We made ourselves look bad last week," added linebacker Alvin Walton. "We can't give up big plays on special teams, and I was one of the guilty parties there. I know I didn't have a good game. We just have to play like we know we can."
Tonight, Baltimore faces a team it has never beaten. San Antonio spent its first two seasons as the Sacramento Gold Miners, the league's firstAmerican expansion team, before relocating for the 1995 season. Last year, Sacramento defeated Baltimore twice.
The majority of the Gold Miners are back as Texans, with 24 veterans back from a 9-8-1 team. Baltimore's main concern will be quarterback David Archer. He directed the Texans to 30 unanswered second-half points in a 47-24 victory over Shreveport in the team's season opener.
At 33 and with seven NFL seasons behind him before he made his mark two years ago in Sacramento, Archer frustrates defenses with his courage in the pocket and the accuracy in his throwing arm. Last week, he completed 19 of 26 passes for 228 yards and two touchdowns, hitting eight different receivers in the process.
San Antonio also used running back Mike Saunders effectively. Acquired as a free agent last month, Saunders, a former Saskatchewan Roughrider, has shown that he might be a capable replacement for Troy Mills, who signed with the San Francisco 49ers after gaining 2,003 all-purpose yards in 1994. Saunders burned Shreveport for 169 rushing yards and a touchdown last week.
The trick for the Stallions' defense is to keep Saunders from getting outside, while adjusting their pass rush to the short drops they will probably see often from Archer. Baltimore failed to record a sack against B.C., mainly because the Lions protected Danny McManus with six or seven blockers, and McManus released short passes quickly -- accounting for much of his 397 passing yards.
The Stallions could be tested in the defensive backfield, where Courtney Griffin will replace the injured Karl Anthony at cornerback, but Matthews expects newly activated Grant Carter give the line a spark at strong-side defensive end.
Carter would have been a starter by now, had he not pulled a hamstring in Baltimore's exhibition finale two weeks ago. After the team waived Jock Jones on Monday, Carter, who had an excellent game against Ottawa in the exhibition opener, moved into the spot opposite rush end Elfrid Payton.
"I watched the [B.C.] game on TV, but I could only watch for about four plays. Then I went bowling," Carter said.
"Every fiber of my body can't wait to get out there. I'm having trouble staying calm about it."
Offensively and on special teams, Baltimore also figures to benefit from the return of fullback Peter Tuipulotu, one of the league's better blockers and a fine receiver. He also missed the opener with a hamstring pull.
Tuipulotu's presence could be a deciding factor in how well Baltimore sustains its drives.
Last week, the Stallions punted five times, managed a modest 19 first downs and scored only 10 points in the first half.
"There's high expectations for us this year. But when we lost that game, we realized there's more to it than just having great players and looking good last year," Tuipulotu said. "We have the talent, but we have to perform on the field. I think the team is going to respond this week."
NOTE: Former Maryland basketball star Joe Smith, recently selected as the top pick in the NBA draft, will participate in tonight's coin toss.
Site: Memorial Stadium
TV/Radio: HTS (tape delay, 1 p.m., tomorrow)/WJFK (1300 AM), WGRX (100.7 FM)
Last week: Baltimore lost to B.C., 37-34; San Antonio beat Shreveport, 47-24.
On the sidelines: Baltimore's Don Matthews has a career record of 110-67-1 in 11 CFL seasons. Kay Stephenson, in his third CFL season, has a career record of 16-20-1.
What Baltimore has to do to win: Improve its special teams play, which helped put the team in a 14-0 hole against B.C. by giving the Lions great field position. Needs to do a better job offensively by converting on second down.
What San Antonio has to do to win: Get Mike Saunders into the offense early, so as to neutralize a Baltimore pass rush that figures to be energized by the return of end Grant Carter.
Injury report: Baltimore -- CB Karl Anthony (knee) is out. San Antonio -- LB Hurlie Brown (knee), WR Kitrick Taylor (shoulder) and DE Jeff Sawyer (hamstring) are out; WR Mark Stock (ankle), G Rob Stevenson (ankle) are probable.
Outlook: With five of its first seven games on the road, Baltimore badly needs to win its home opener. The return of FB Peter Tuipulotu and DE Carter figure to improve the Stallions in all phases, particularly special teams. The loss of Anthony could hurt Baltimore's pass coverage, although Courtney Griffin recovered nicely after a slow start last week. If the Stallions contain Saunders and force David Archer to beat them through the air, and if Baltimore's offensive line does a better job of protecting QB Tracy Ham than it did last week, Baltimore should start its new-name era with a win.