Cornell Brown has been warming up for this chance for two seasons and three training camps. And if the tender right shoulder of outside linebacker Peter Boulware fails to hold up this season, Brown could find himself confronting the biggest moment of his young career.
Brown could be a starter.
"I'm just waiting for the challenge," Brown said after yesterday's dramatic 28-24 victory over the New York Giants in the preseason finale.
"A lot of great players make their mark by getting the chance that maybe I might receive. My whole goal coming into the league was to start. I prepare myself to perform in that role every week."
While the Ravens cross their fingers and hope Boulware can beat his nagging shoulder problem -- Boulware is expected to start in next week's season opener in St. Louis after leaving yesterday's game in pain -- they are banking on Brown as insurance at strong-side linebacker.
Brown certainly has tuned up for his opportunity. Throughout most of training camp, the Ravens held Boulware out of practice while he concentrated on rehabilitating his shoulder. In Boulware's place was Brown, taking countless repetitions in practice and starting the first three preseason games.
Brown finished the preseason with 11 tackles, including seven solo. He looked smooth in pass coverage. He tackled with sure hands. In the eyes of middle linebacker Ray Lewis, the third-year player from Virginia Tech is ready if the Ravens call upon him.
"It's nothing new for [Brown] now," Lewis said. "If he had to come off the sideline [unexpectedly], that would be hard. He's been playing a lot, so it should be an easy transition. He's matured, and he has a lot of enthusiasm. Anytime you have that, you can create a ballplayer."
The Ravens have spent three years creating a linebacker. Like Boulware, Brown made his collegiate mark as a pass rusher at defensive end. Brown was an All-Big East Conference first-team selection as a senior, when he collected eight of his 40 career sacks.
Unlike Boulware, who was the fourth overall pick in the 1997 draft and made his first Pro Bowl in just his second season, Brown has made progress in low-key fashion.
Brown, 6 feet, 240 pounds, a sixth-round pick from the same draft, started making his way from the ground up -- on special teams. Brown became known for dishing out the occasional bone-jarring hit in that role.
"I never played on them at all [before joining the NFL]," said Brown, who finished fourth last year on the team with 11 special teams tackles. "That's the biggest thing for anybody coming out of college. You're used to playing and starting. To go to just playing on special teams is a big change. You've got to take a whole different attitude and approach to special teams, because they are a big deal up here."
Then there was the adjustment to new territory on the defense. Instead of lining up against big tackles and slugging his way into the backfield to hit ball carriers and quarterbacks, Brown had to learn to operate in space: reading keys, protecting the outside, covering running backs coming out of the backfield.
Ravens defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis said he could see Brown rounding into form during training camp. Once Brown overcame a case of nerves in this year's preseason opener in Philadelphia, he was over the hump.
"He was nervous as a tick during [pre-game] warm-ups in Philly," Marvin Lewis said of Brown. "He couldn't do anything right, but he responded in the game. He had a little drop-off in Atlanta, but these last two games he's really played well.
"You generally don't see two bad plays in a row from Cornell. He makes adjustments now. Regardless of whether Peter is on or not, we expect Cornell to give us snaps in the game with the first unit, no matter what. I think he is up to the task now."
Pub Date: 9/04/99