The Tennessee Titans are anxious to get their stagnant running game going, because they have the second-worst rushing attack in the NFL through four games. And the Ravens could be taking the field Sunday in Nashville without starting defensive tackles Tony Siragusa and Larry Webster.
That means the spotlight figures to shine on the younginterior defensive line duo of Lional Dalton and Martin Chase. It also points to a concentrated role inside for fellow backup Fernando Smith, who can play any line position in the Ravens' 4-3 alignment.
As the Titans try to get Pro Bowl running back Eddie George (2.9-yard rushing average) untracked, they figure to put the Ravens' depth up front to a strenuous test.
Siragusa had arthroscopic knee surgery 11 days ago and could be held out until the Oct. 21 game against Kansas City. A turf toe injury knocked Webster out of Sunday's game in Atlanta. He also might not return until after the team's bye weekend, which follows the Titans game.
"If Goose and Webster aren't there, and if you're Tennessee, I would think [the interior front]would be their focus," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "Goose has to go full speed at practice [today]. He needs to be at 100 percent to be effective. We'll wait and see how Larry responds this week."
The Ravens have been pleased with the Dalton-Chase combination since adding it to their roster 18 months ago.
Chase, drafted in the fifth round out of Oklahoma, hurt his ankle in training camp, then spent his rookie year on injured reserve. When Webster went down, Chase, 6 feet 2, 295 pounds, filled the void by taking 29 snaps, easily his career-high. He helped keep running backs Byron Hanspard and Ken Oxendine bottled up, and he showed a good surge as a pass rusher.
Dalton, 6-1, 320, signed as a rookie free agent out of Eastern Michigan and proved to be one of the team's more pleasant surprises in 1998. He played in the team's final two games. In the season finale, he forced a fumble by Detroit's Barry Sanders.
Dalton, who has impressive quickness and agility, has started in place of Siragusa for the last two games. He has eight tackles and a forced fumble this year. He took 34 snaps in Atlanta, his career-high.
"The more reps you get, the better you get," Dalton said. "I'm getting used to reading blocks. I can feel myself progressing."
"Dalton plays with power. He's explosive off the ball, and he's getting used to doing it on every snap," Ravens defensive line coach Rex Ryan said. "Chase is very intelligent. He knows his job and the jobs of all four positions on the line. Having a year off slows a guy's progress a lot of times, but he's really improved. He's better now than he was in training camp."
"Those are two good, young defensive tackles right there," Webster said of Dalton and Chase. "They're getting better, and they have no choice but to get better."
The Ravens also have been pleased with the contributions of Smith, a six-year veteran who originally was drafted in the second round by Minnesota and played for Jacksonville in 1998. Smith, 6-6, 287, has played end and tackle effectively, and he already has produced 11 tackles, one sack and a team-record three fumble recoveries. He recovered two fumbles against the Falcons.
"That's just chasing the ball down the field. Some linemen will stop once the play goes past them, but you've got to chase the ball," Smith said. "I like the utility role. I like being able to play all four positions on the line. I like to do everything."
The Ravens figure to need significant help from their backups to keep Tennessee's running game in check. The Titans abandoned their one-back offense this year by bringing in fullback Lorenzo Neal to block for George, who has rushed for 4,283 yards since entering the league in 1996. George has averaged 85 rushing yards in six career games against the Ravens.
But George has rushed for only 222 yards on 76 carries in 1999. His longest run has gone for 13 yards. And the Titans, while producing the league's fifth-best passing game so far behind backup quarterback Neil O'Donnell, have stalled on the ground. Only Cleveland's rushing attack has been less productive.
"Going against a team like the Titans, you hope you have everybody healthy. But if you don't, you don't make excuses," Ryan said.
"We're not panicking by any stretch of the imagination. We have a guy like Fernando who can play end or tackle. Dalton and Chase are young guys we feel real good about. We're not flinching at all."
NOTES: Left offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden's condition is improving, three days after he left Atlanta with a cervical strain and was forced to wear a neck collar. But Billick began game-planning for Tennessee by assuming that backup Spencer Folau would replace Ogden, who was not expected to practice today. Linebacker Peter Boulware is tied with Chicago's Clyde Simmons for the league lead with five sacks. After four games in 1998, the Ravens' defense had allowed at least 20 yards on 15 plays. After four games this season, opponents have gained at least 20 yards on seven occasions.
Next for Ravens
Opponent: Tennessee Titans
Site: Adelphia Coliseum, Nashville, Tenn.
When: Sunday, 4:15 p.m.
TV/Radio: Ch. 13/WJFK (1300 AM), WLIF (101.9 FM)
Line: Titans by 7