Improvement begins in middle with Lewis Rookie's development answers early questions about unit's strength


Ravens coach Ted Marchibroda recently said that linebacker was the team's most pressing question mark coming into training camp, but that those doubts faded away during the team's 3-1 preseason.

Granted, the Ravens got steady, encouraging play out of the position throughout the preseason, especially from rookie middle linebacker Ray Lewis, a first-round pick out of Miami who has been impressive since the start of training camp.

Lewis appears equipped for the NFL challenge. He's a bit undersized to take on linemen and blocking fullbacks at times, but his instincts and speed are outstanding. And he has taken over the signal-calling duties with veteran-like leadership.

When the Ravens released 10-year veteran Pepper Johnson, they essentially were passing the baton to the rookie, who appears unfazed by his new league.

"Ray came in with the talent and the confidence and the charisma," defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis said. "He has never looked back and he never will."

The Ravens are placing a lot of stock in Lewis' rapid development, a plan that could unravel if he goes down with a serious injury. His backup is Eddie Sutter, a three-year veteran whose claim to fame is he is a fine special teams player.

At the outside spots, Mike Croel mans the strong side, and Mike Caldwell will play the weak side.

Croel, a six-year veteran who was the Rookie of the Year with Denver in 1991, has responded to Lewis' attacking scheme. He shook off a calf muscle strain with two sacks against Buffalo in the preseason finale.

xTC Caldwell, a four-year veteran, was one of the team's most improved players during the preseason. Although this is the first time he has begun a season as a starter, Caldwell started six games last year with the Cleveland Browns and recorded 100 tackles, third-highest on the team.

"I don't consider Caldwell a surprise," Marvin Lewis said. "He's only a surprise to all of the people who said he couldn't do it."

The outside backups are question marks. Craig Powell, a first-round pick last year, is back after missing most of 1995 with a knee injury. And Jerrol Williams has been sidelined since 1994, when he played in six games with Pittsburgh. He has not started since 1993. He also could be used in the middle if Ray Lewis goes down.

Scouting report

Strengths: This is an athletic group that gets to the ball quickly and has sound pass-coverage skills. Mike Croel looks like a strong blitzer.

Weaknesses: With Eddie Sutter, Craig Powell and Jerrol Williams as backups, the Ravens are starting the year with thin ranks.

Key to success: Ray Lewis, who could make a run at Rookie of the Year honors, must stay healthy.

Pub Date: 8/31/96

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