Ravens' 4-0 mark boost, challenge; Preseason success didn't carry over in '98


Ravens coach Brian Billick senses the positive vibe that has been created amid his team's 4-0 preseason finish.

Then, Billick takes a sobering look at recent history and sees an immediate challenge as he embarks on his first season as a head coach.

Of the 10 teams that played perfect preseasons in the last six years, only three failed to make the playoffs. Yes, the 1998 Ravens are one of them. After finishing 4-0 last August, the Ravens proceeded to lay an egg in the form of a 6-10 regular season. That caused an overhaul that began with the hiring of Billick.

"This team has been through a 4-0 preseason and it didn't translate into the regular season. It's my job to see if we can turn this start into a statistical trend in the regular season," Billick said. "Obviously, getting off to a good start to show [the players] we can be a good team [is important]."

The Ravens will begin again on Sunday in St. Louis, opening on the road for the first time in their four-year run in Baltimore. They will do it with a new offense led by a new quarterback and a new coach, sporting a new system based on deception and formations that change by the play.

Six new faces will grace the starting lineup, including tight end Aaron Pierce, who has not played since 1997. Billick said Pierce, one of four tight ends who made the team's final 53-man roster, could defer to Lovett Purnell in a given week, based on the opposing defense and the strengths of which player best will complement H-back Greg DeLong in the team's two tight end set.

"Lovett Purnell is showing himself to be multidimensional, but Aaron Pierce gives us more of the complete package we need in the way we've got to attack St. Louis," Billick said. "In a given game, Purnell may start."

The other new faces on offense include quarterback Scott Mitchell, fullback Chuck Evans, wide receiver Qadry Ismail, left guard Everett Lindsay and right tackle Harry Swayne.

As for the running backs, do not expect No. 1 tailback Priest Holmes to have all of the fun while Errict Rhett stands around and watches as he did a year ago. Billick envisions Holmes, Rhett and Evans sharing about 400 carries this year, with Holmes getting about 250.

"The key to our offense is to be multiple in our formations and our personnel, to make defenses keep up with us a little bit," Billick said. "We don't have the talent level to just line up and smack away at you with a premier, elite, dominant running back or premier, elite receiver corps."

Defensively, Billick said an elite group can emerge in 1999, although two of his key players are coming to St. Louis not at full strength.

Early in Friday's preseason finale against the New York Giants, outside linebacker Peter Boulware re-injured his tender right shoulder after 16 plays and had to leave the game. Billick plans to start Cornell Brown in Boulware's place, using Boulware in selected, pass-rushing situations.

Then there's right end Michael McCrary, who missed all of the preseason, mostly due to his rehabilitation schedule after off-season knee surgery and partly due to stalled contract extension talks. The plan is to start McCrary, with backup Keith Washington close by, because Billick does not expect McCrary to play extensively.

Billick also pointed to two players, linebacker Brad Jackson and tight end A. J. Ofodile, as factors in the team's decision to waive backup middle linebacker Tyrus McCloud.

The Ravens concluded that Jackson, a first-year player who worked on the team's practice roster last year, had passed McCloud in terms of his usefulness on special teams. They also like Jackson's ability to play either outside linebacker spot.

As for Ofodile, besides his improved blocking, Billick likes his potential, his 6-foot-6 presence and his ability to get open and run after the catch. He had four catches for 37 yards in the preseason.

"A. J., like Aaron Pierce, is someone who can stretch the middle, and that quality is something we need to retain," Billick said.

NOTES: Billick said a decision on wide receiver Patrick Johnson's availability against the Rams might not be made until game time. Johnson pulled a calf muscle against the Giants. Beginning today, the Ravens' practices are closed for the rest of the season. Eighteen players, just over one-third of the finalized roster, are new to the club. They include three draft choices (cornerback Chris McAlister, wide receiver Brandon Stokley and offensive lineman Edwin Mulitalo), 11 free agents (quarterback Stoney Case, wide receivers Justin Armour, Billy Davis and Ismail, tight ends Frank Wainwright, DeLong and Pierce, fullback Evans, right tackle Swayne, cornerback James Trapp and defensive end Fernando Smith) and four players who came via trade (quarterbacks Mitchell and Tony Banks, Purnell and Lindsay).

Next for Ravens

Regular-season opener

Opponent: St. Louis Rams

Site: Trans World Dome, St. Louis

When: Sunday, 1 p.m. TV/Radio: Ch. 13/WJFK (1300 AM), WLIF (101.9 FM)

Line: Even

Pub Date: 9/07/99

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