Big offense of Patriots major test for Ravens Stopping Bledsoe, Martin easier said than done

THE BALTIMORE SUN

A look of concern came over Ravens safety Eric Turner's face when New England quarterback Drew Bledsoe became the subject of conversation.

After an uneven performance throughout September, the Ravens begin another critical month -- which includes back-to-back road games against Indianapolis and Denver -- by welcoming Bledsoe and the Patriots to Memorial Stadium on Sunday. For the Ravens' defense, that means contending with the most dangerous array of weapons they have faced so far in 1996.

The 2-2 Patriots can hurt a defense in many ways. Running back Curtis Martin is on track for his second straight 1,000-yard season. Tight end Ben Coates is among the elite at his position. Rookie wide receiver Terry Glenn (17 catches, 13.6 yards per catch) is quickly justifying New England's decision to make him its first-round draft pick last spring. Receiver Shawn Jefferson and fullback Sam Gash make big plays without filling up the stat sheets. David Meggett is still a dangerous third-down specialist.

But New England's show starts with the strong right arm of Bledsoe, who has yet to turn 25 and already has thrown for more than 10,000 yards in a career barely three years old.

"He can wreak a lot of havoc on a defense," Turner said. "He can fit balls in [coverages] where you don't think he can. He can get it there.

"It will be a big challenge for our defense, not just with him and the passing game, but with Martin in the running game," Turner added. "It comes at a good time for us. We need to take what we did last week and roll that over into this week."

What the Ravens' defense did last week in a 17-10 victory over visiting New Orleans was bend a lot without snapping.

The Ravens, who played four different right ends in place of the injured Anthony Pleasant, gave right cornerback Donny Brady his first NFL start, and were so thin at linebacker that Keith Goganious -- acquired three days before kickoff -- contributed two tackles from the weak side in a cameo appearance. They also survived a couple of eight-minute drives in the first half, giving up only three points.

The Ravens rebounded in the second half. Though they gave up a Jim Everett touchdown pass on a busted play, they otherwise shut down the Saints, allowing only six first downs and 11 rushing yards.

But those were the winless Saints, with an offense that ranks near the bottom of the NFC. These are the Patriots, who have awakened from an 0-2 start to score 59 points during their two-game winning streak. That was Everett, whose best days are behind him. This is Bledsoe, who is among the most exciting young quarterbacks in the NFL.

One dynamic in the Ravens' favor is Bledsoe's tendency to make the ill-advised throw in an effort to create a big play. Coming into this season, he had thrown for 10,556 yards and 53 touchdowns, but his 57 interceptions were a testament to his inconsistency.

In four games this year, Bledsoe has thrown only three interceptions in 163 attempts, and he already has 907 yards and six touchdown passes.

Even so, Ravens defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis thinks the key to beating the Patriots is stopping Martin and putting New England in third-and-long situations. In other words, make Bledsoe win the game. In fact, Lewis doesn't think Bledsoe is the toughest quarterback he has prepared for this season.

"I don't think he is as good as [Pittsburgh quarterback] Mike Tomczak. Bledsoe is a talented player with a talented team, and the team goes as well as he plays. It's obviously a dangerous thing when this guy gets hot," Lewis said. "But Curtis is the guy we have to shut down. He is the guy who keeps them in games. He makes a lot of people miss."

Lewis knows this first-hand. When he coached collegiately at Pitt, Martin played there. As a freshman, the Panthers were unbeaten with him, 1-5 after losing him to injuries.

Martin and New England's veteran offensive line, led by left tackle Bruce Armstrong and guards William Roberts and Bob Kratch, figure to put much pressure on the Ravens' front seven, especially on the right side if Pleasant cannot play.

Stopping Bledoe promises to be another dilemma. When he drops back, whom do you pay closest attention to? Coates? Glenn? Meggett? Do you blitz up the middle to disrupt the 6-foot-5 Bledsoe's vision and make the slow-footed passer leave the pocket? Or try to confuse him by mixing zone coverages and disguising double-teams?

"They've got such a good set of receivers that we can't load up in any one area," Lewis said. "It all comes down to stopping the run and getting ourselves into good third-down situations."

The Ravens have not been too sharp in those situations, having allowed opponents to succeed on 52 percent of their third-down tries. And their pass rush has been average, at best. The Ravens have six sacks in four games, four by healthy players. Left end Rob Burnett has three.

With Bledsoe at the controls for New England, it promises to be a challenging day for cornerbacks Antonio Langham and Brady, along with Turner and fellow safety Stevon Moore.

"We've got to put pressure on Bledsoe," Moore said. "If you don't pressure the quarterback, I don't care how good your cover guys are, he's going to have a good day. Our hands will be full on Sunday."

Pub Date: 10/02/96

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