Major questions; RAVENS OUTLOOK


1. Can Scott Mitchell be an effective No. 1 quarterback?

In preseason, Mitchell shook off the rust from last year when he started only two games for the Detroit Lions before being benched for rookie Charlie Batch. Despite reports out of Detroit to the contrary, Mitchell has gotten along well with his teammates and worked extremely hard. He has made steady progress in each preseason game and seems to be gaining control of the offense. The key may be that this system won't require him to win games, but just for him to not lose them with mistakes.

2. Will the Ravens' running game be productive?

Chuck Evans certainly will be productive at fullback because he can run, block and catch passes. The Ravens won't have an explosive attack, but Priest Holmes, Errict Rhett and Jay Graham have been pushing each other for playing time at running back. The platooning should keep fresh legs in the game, but don't expect to see many runs of 20 yards or more.

3. Is the passing game solid?

The receivers have made much progress, but there is still room for improvement. The Ravens will have a strong vertical passing attack because they have speedsters like Jermaine Lewis, Patrick Johnson and Billy Davis. Even if the Ravens don't go long, defenses have to respect the threat. The Ravens have to improve their short- and intermediate-range passing game. That should be their bread and butter this season.

4. Has the secondary improved?

Yes, and the main reason is secondary coach Steve Shafer. He is a stickler for fundamentals and has the respect of his players. But remember that the Ravens are still young. Cornerbacks Chris McAlister, DeRon Jenkins and Duane Starks have only four years' playing experience combined, and strong safety Kim Herring has less than two full years of starting experience. The future, though, looks exceedingly bright.

5. What is the key to the season?

The Ravens' defense has to move up a level, from being solid to one that forces turnovers and gives the offense good field position. Because the offense is new, the unit will have problems early in the season. The defense may have to carry the team until the second quarter of the season.

6. Will Brian Billick be as creative with the Ravens' offense as he was with the Minnesota Vikings last year?

Yes and no. He won't throw the long ball as much because the Ravens don't have a Randy Moss who can go long or draw double coverage, leaving receivers like Cris Carter or Jake Reed to go one-on-one. But Billick has to be creative to get some explosiveness out of this offense. Plus, creativity is in his blood. He can't help but tinker and add some gadgets.

7. How tough is the Ravens' schedule?

It's fairly easy. Because the Ravens finished fourth in the AFC Central last season, the team received a favorable schedule that includes only four teams involved in postseason play last season. The Ravens have seven games against teams that had losing records a year ago, five against teams that had winning seasons, two against the expansion Cleveland Browns and two against the Tennessee Titans, who were 8-8.

8. Who is on the hot seat?

Billick has a lot of pressure on him, taking over a club that has won 16 games in the past three years and plays in a new, publicly funded $223 million stadium. But he still has a honeymoon period. The same can't be said for Mitchell, outside linebacker Jamie Sharper, free safety Rod Woodson and defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis. They have to produce now.

9. Is this a .500 club?

Only if everything goes right. Coaching and an established system go a long way in this league, and the Ravens are on their way. But this team lacks bona fide playmakers, and that's going to hurt. In a year or two, they should be a contender. For now, six or seven wins is realistic.

10. Are there any internal problems?

Not at the moment. But keep an eye on Billick's relationship with the players. There have been some rumblings among players about him repeatedly pointing out that he is the coach and about how much power he has over the team. It might be a rookie coach mistake, an ego problem or a team adjusting after having too much leniency under the former staff. It's an issue that will need to be addressed at some time.

Pub Date: 9/10/99

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