ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- It's difficult for running back Leroy Hoard to feel secure these days.
As he has struggled during the preseason, the Ravens have been looking at several alternatives, including Garrison Hearst and Vaughn Hebron.
Things got even more tenuous for Hoard last night.
While the Ravens routed the Buffalo Bills, 37-14, in their final preseason game, Hoard continued to have problems getting in a groove.
He gained just 14 yards on nine carries and wound up the preseason with just 90 yards in 41 carries.
By contrast, backup running back Earnest Byner and fullback Carwell Gardner had good nights. Gardner, a former Bill, had 38 yards in five carries and Byner added 37 yards in four carries.
After the game, Ravens coach Ted Marchibroda didn't exactly ** give Hoard a vote of confidence.
Asked if Hoard will open the season as the starting running back, he said, "It's a little hard to say. I think I may have to think it over and see how everything goes and see what we have to do against Oakland before I can pass any judgments."
Hoard, who noted that teams don't game plan in the preseason, said, "I can't do nothing about that. That's not my decision. Whatever he goes with, that's what I've got to live with.
"It's been like that my whole career. I just expect it. I don't think as long as I play running back that I'm ever going to be able to feel like, hey, I can relax and go out there and play. It's always going to be a situation where I have to do well. I have to impress people regardless of what the situation is. I'm used to it. It happened when we were in Cleveland and it's happening now."
Marchibroda did note that Byner's yardage came against the Buffalo backups and added, "I'm not sure it's all Leroy's fault. He hasn't seemed to have too much running room."
The Ravens' unsettled running back situation was the major question mark of the preseason.
Pro football still starts with the run and the Ravens have yet to prove they can run the ball effectively.
The biggest plus for the team in the preseason was that the players showed they have adjusted to the new defense installed by defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis.
They played well during the entire preseason, but they got a particular lift last night from linebacker Mike Croel, who had two sacks, and defensive tackle Dan Footman, who had one.
Croel, signed as a free agent in July, got off to a slow start because of a calf injury that sidelined him in the exhibition opener against the Philadelphia Eagles and limited his play the last two games.
The injury made it difficult for him to get that first step around the corner, which is his speciality.
Last night, though, Croel showed what he can do when he's healthy. Although he can have problems in coverage or against the run, his specialty is rushing the passer. He didn't get much of a chance to do that last year with the New York Giants.
"I like to get in that pass-rushing mode that I was taken out of for a while," Croel said. "If they keep it the same, everything should work out pretty well."
Lewis said: "We were hoping to get a chance to see him rush the quarterback. We've got a lot of aggressive guys and we're trying to utilize their ability. Dan Footman had a great game. He showed he'll be a force inside."
Lewis likes to say his safety duo of Eric Turner and Stevon Moore ranks with the best in the league and both players were active last night.
Moore intercepted Todd Collins' pass and both he and Turner drilled receivers, notably a shot by Turner on the Bills' Lonnie Johnson.
Another encouraging sign for the Ravens is they got their third punt return for a touchdown in four games as Jermaine Lewis did it for the second time.
Now the Ravens need an offense to back their defense.
Quarterback Vinny Testaverde, whose has been mostly inconsistent, threw a touchdown pass to Michael Jackson, but also threw an interception into triple coverage. He also was stripped of the ball once while scrambling, but he recovered his own fumble.
The Ravens appear to be a team that can stay in most games with their defense. The question is whether they can score enough to win in the regular season.
Now that the preseason is over, their record isn't 3-1. It's 0-0, the same mark the other 29 teams have.
The Ravens start finding out in the regular season against the Oakland Raiders next week if the preseason success meant anything.
Pub Date: 8/24/96