Start is lukewarm, but there's a spark; NFL: The Ravens have met most expectations with a 2-2 record, making small strides under first-year coach Brian Billick and showing a bit of attitude adjustment with their emotional play.; Ravens quarterly review

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The Ravens' formula for winning games won't be pretty for the rest of the 1999 season, except maybe when they play the Cincinnati Bengals. If you want explosive offenses, turn to the Washington Redskins or Green Bay Packers. If you want great defense, watch the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

The Ravens are mudders, a team that has to scratch and fight for victories with a defense that sometimes borders on greatness and an offense that still is searching for an identity under first-year coach Brian Billick. The Ravens are 2-2 and have pretty much fulfilled reasonable expectations.

They entered the season without a proven quarterback or a go-to receiver, and they still don't have either. They knew their defense would be solid, and so far it's ranked No. 8 in the league. As for the explosive plays, Billick has gotten just enough to win two games thanks to reborn running back Errict Rhett and an occasional deep pass.

But now the Ravens enter the toughest part of the schedule, with Tennessee (twice), Kansas City, Buffalo and Jacksonville (twice) among the next eight opponents. The stretch also includes road trips to Cleveland on Nov. 7 and Cincinnati on Nov. 21.

"In this last game, we did not turn the ball over," Billick said of the Ravens' 19-13 overtime victory against the Atlanta Falcons. "If that continues, that's going to be a huge plus. If we can maintain the same productivity out of the running game that we've had in the first four games, it will enhance our profile of what we're going to be about. Offensively, our next step is to find some efficiency in our passing game on both first and third down.

"Defensively, it's pretty simple. Can we progress and continue to play well as team? We know we have the individuals, but can we play and develop the core mentality that the good defenses have when they are playing well? Our communication, particularly on the back end, has to become more instinctive between the safety and corners and corners with safeties. That's also true for the linebackers and defensive line."

Realistically, the Ravens aren't playoff-bound because they have too many holes. The most interesting story of this season is Billick and how he'll mature as a head coach. So far, he has handled himself well, especially for a coach with a team low on offensive talent.

So far he hasn't panicked or pointed any fingers. His demeanor is pleasant and he hasn't deviated from the systems he installed along with defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis.

Oh, Billick has made some mistakes. He wants to have total control, was a little reluctant to go to the running game at the beginning of the season and overestimated the maturity level of this team heading into the season opener against the St. Louis Rams. He expected more from a team that had been somewhat mollified after complaining in the past about such things as the long practices of former coach Ted Marchibroda.

Billick had shorter practices, though they were within his framework. He didn't impose a curfew in training camp. He installed an unpredictable offense, which the team didn't have under the previous regime. And then the Ravens gave him a 27-10 loss to the Rams.

It might have been a culture shock for Billick, who had a veteran team last year as offensive coordinator of the Minnesota Vikings.

"The biggest surprise to me is that I constantly have to remind myself of just how young this team is," Billick said. "Ray Lewis [middle linebacker] is the perfect example. Because of his incredible ability and production, and because he is the heart and soul of this team, you think he has been through all of this and seen certain situations before.

"You think of him being a veteran, but you forget how young he is and that there are a lot of new situations for him. It's the same with Jonathan Ogden [offensive tackle].

Billick downplays being a motivator, saying it has to come from within each player. But he plays the game well. He shows his teams excerpts from certain films. The stare he gave kicker Matt Stover after he missed a 38-yard field-goal attempt against the Falcons was intimidating, and the move to sign possible replacement Joe Nedney two days later was motivating.

Billick occasionally uses the old trick of ripping the print media in front of his players to promote an "us against them" them mentality.

His emotion is starting to emerge through his players on the field. Right offensive tackle Harry Swayne took a swipe at a Cleveland player after he took a cheap shot at quarterback Stoney Case. That never happened here before. Or how about Rhett throwing upper cuts like pro wrestler Goldberg after a big run last Sunday?

And then there was the taunting by Ravens receiver Patrick Johnson, who danced over Falcons cornerback Ray Buchanan after a 52-yard touchdown catch on Sunday. Was it pretty? No. Football isn't a cute game. It's blood and broken bones and big bodies colliding. It's taunting and trash talking. Johnson's dance was, finally, a nasty move by a team that has been danced on by the likes of Jerome Bettis for the past three seasons. At last, the Ravens insulted someone else first in an opponent's house.

Johnson's dance sparked the team, and you can bet he won't pay any of the $2,500 fine he will probably be assessed by the league. Call it a team debt.

But the Ravens can't win on emotion alone. They'll continue to need turnovers from the defense because it might be midseason before this offense is straightened out. The offensive line and Rhett have performed well together, with Rhett leading the AFC in rushing with 350 yards on 71 carries.

But Case is a question mark. The Ravens' brief experiment with Scott Mitchell as a starter was a failure and the addition of Tony Banks has been a disappointment. Billick has gone to Case, a fifth-year journeyman who has been inconsistent as a starter. Billick believes Case could be the team's quarterback of the future.

But is he serious or just building up Case to get through the season?

"We've got a long way to go. Obviously, it's a little bit different but I'm in no different situation than one of those teams that took one of those five quarterbacks in the first round," said Billick, alluding to April's NFL draft. "Stoney is a little different in that he has some experience in the league, but none as a starter. In my mind, he clearly has all the physical tools. He is very solid fundamentally. It's kind of exciting about what his potential can be. He just needs some experience. He doesn't make the same mistake from one week to another."

He also doesn't have a lot of good receivers. Qadry Ismail has been impressive and leads the team in receiving with 16 catches for 213 yards, but no one has shown that strong burst to pull away from defensive backs. Jermaine Lewis was expected to have a big season, but the 5-foot-7 speedster only has eight catches for 77 yards and no touchdowns.

He has been getting held up at the line of scrimmage. Also, his size is a factor. Lewis isn't a big target and even if he gets behind a cornerback by a step or two, the quarterback still has to put a special trajectory on the ball. There is speculation that Lewis needs a new shot of confidence and less criticism from Billick.

"We're still in the first quarter of the season," said Billick, whose offense 26th in passing with a 160.8-yard average and 23rd overall. "Jermaine is big part of what we're doing. It may or may not show up in the total number of catches that he has. But people have to respect Jermaine. We'll see where he is at year's end and where he fits into the scheme. We're still establishing ourselves offensively."

Defensively, the Ravens are playing extremely well, holding teams to an average of 275 yards a game. Their front seven is strong and the development of weak-side linebacker Jamie Sharper has put the group of Sharper, Lewis and Peter Boulware among the league's elite. But there are problems again in the secondary.

The experiment of moving Rod Woodson from cornerback to safety has not gone well, with Woodson being slow in pass coverage and taking bad pursuit angles against the run. Strong safety Kim Herring also has started slowly. Nickel cornerback and rookie Chris McAlister has played as well as any of the defensive backs, and starters DeRon Jenkins and Duane Starks have been average at best.

Starks has been disappointing. In training camp, he was the best in the secondary. As of yesterday, the Ravens had him working behind McAlister in the regular defense. The Ravens started McAlister in the second half against the Falcons. The Ravens, though, may use Starks in more man-to-man coverage situations.

"Duane is going through a typical second year," Billick said. "He is probably saying, 'I got the routine down now, how do I take that next step of being a true professional?' Again, as I alluded to earlier, I have to be aware of the youth on this team. Remember, we're talking about a cornerback who is only in his second year.

"If he wants to be more aggressive, you have to put him in a format where he can do that. But we can't sacrifice the integrity of the defense to do something that may or may not be in the scheme. We'll see."

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