For months, the Ravens have touted their defensive line as one of the team's strengths. That point is tough to argue, what with 32 years of NFL experience spread out among the team's top five linemen, some of whom have played at a Pro Bowl level.
And yet, youth among the backups and injuries overall have cast a glare on the defensive front, as the Ravens prepare for Saturday's preseason opener against the visiting Philadelphia Eagles.
Veteran ends Rob Burnett and Anthony Pleasant, with 13 years of experience between them, are among the most underrated tandems in the league. Pleasant led the Cleveland Browns last year with eight sacks and caused a team-high six fumbles, to go with his 79 tackles. Burnett was the ideal complement, with 85 tackles and 7 1/2 sacks. Each started every game in 1995.
Burnett's nagging injuries aside -- he sat out yesterday's workout with hamstring and groin pulls and a wrist injury -- the question marks begin to surface on the line's interior.
Nine-year veteran Tim Goad brings proven ability as a run stopper to the left tackle spot, where he also will play the nose guard position in defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis' 4-3 alignment. Goad is winning the early battle for that spot over former Maryland lineman Larry Webster. At right tackle is fourth-year player Dan Footman, who performed capably last year (71 tackles, five sacks, eight pass deflections) after moving inside from end.
The rotation gets a little fuzzy after that. Backup defensive end Tau Pupua is out indefinitely with a foot injury. Backup tackle Mike Frederick, moved inside in his second season, has yet to practice at full speed because of a pulled hamstring. Rookie Corey Sears could be out indefinitely with a knee injury. Second-year backup tackle Chad Eaton is suffering from a groin pull.
That probably means that on Saturday, young players like rookie tackle David Barnard, second-year end Elliott Fortune and third-year end Rick Lyle, who missed all of last season after having back surgery, will see lots of playing time.
"The young guys will be eager and anxious," defensive line coach Jacob Burney said. "We want to see how they fight against guys they're not familiar with.
"We've got to answer some questions inside. I know what I've got with Goad. He's real dependable. We'll know more about people like Barnard and Lyle after Saturday."
Coach Ted Marchibroda said, "This game is especially big for players like Barnard. The true test is how they perform in a real game."
Goad said he'll never forget his first exhibition game, and the bundle of nerves he became as kickoff approached. He has tried to impart some advice to youngsters like Barnard, 6 feet 2, 290 pounds, to prepare them for the experience.
"I'm helping them clean up their stances, trying to teach them a few tricks," Goad said. "I'm fighting to keep my job, but I also want them to play well behind me, so there isn't a big drop-off.
"As a whole, the defensive line probably has more experience than any other part of the team. But you make a team by making plays when you're thrown into the fire in games. This is a production business."
Barnard, whom Marchibroda said has come on strong after tailing off earlier in camp, said he is primed to produce.
"I'm feeling good. Training camp has definitely been an education for me," Barnard said. "We've got a great core on the defensive line. I'm just looking for a spot in there. I feel like I'm taking steps forward. But there's always another step to take."
For players like Barnard, the biggest step must be taken in two days.
Opponent: Philadelphia Eagles
Date: Saturday, 7: 30 p.m.
Site: Memorial Stadium
TV/Radio: Ch. 54/WJFK (1300 AM), WLIF (101.9 FM)
@Tickets: 1,700 remain
Line: Ravens by 3
Date Opponent Time
Aug. 10 at N.Y. Giants 1 p.m.
Aug. 17 Green Bay 7 p.m.
Aug. 23 at Buffalo 7: 30 p.m.
Pub Date: 8/01/96