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Ravens take step up against Titans today; Tenn. good, confident and playing at home

THE BALTIMORE SUN

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- The Ravens will enter a whole new world today.

When they play the Tennessee Titans at Adelphia Coliseum, they will be playing in a new stadium against one of the top teams in the AFC, replete with one of the best running backs in the NFL, two legitimate big-play receivers and a quarterback who has led a team to the Super Bowl.

This is not the expansion Cleveland Browns or the Atlanta Falcons minus quarterback Chris Chandler and running back Jamal Anderson. The Ravens' two victories this season were against those teams, which have a combined record of 0-8.

The Titans (3-1) are tied with Jacksonville for first place in the AFC Central and quite angry after losing, 24-22, to the San Francisco 49ers on the road last week.

"This is a premier type of game for us," said Ravens coach Brian Billick. "We're playing the first-place team in the division at their new home, where they have played very well. It's an opportunity for us to step up to a new level. With the new stadium and a permanent home, the Titans seem settled finally, and they're playing with tremendous confidence and intensity."

The Ravens will attempt to win three straight games for only the second time since moving to Baltimore for the 1996 season. An added feature to this game is that the Ravens and Titans were involved in several shouting matches and fights in the second game of the series last year in Tennessee.

Neither team is expected to back down today.

"This is going to be a good game," said Ravens right guard Jeff Blackshear. "They have a good, solid defense and they're at home. When you go on the road, you have to play with a certain attitude. You have to go in thinking you can't be stopped.

"You go into their house with one objective, and that's to walk out 3-2. But I can't just have that attitude. It has to come from within the whole team."

The Ravens are still in search of an identity under Billick, their first-year coach. The team has made some small strides, with the intensity and quality of play getting better every week. But this team has a history of getting fans excited after wins and then turning in dud games.

It will be interesting to see if that changes under Billick.

"My history with this team has been only through four games," Billick said. "It's going to take us a while to determine what the personality is of this team.

"But we're making progress and finding out a little more each week. We were on the verge of making something good out of the Pittsburgh game a few weeks ago, and now we've won two in a row, including beating the defending NFC champions on the road."

The Ravens aren't going into the game completely healthy, especially on the interior lines. Offensively, right tackle Harry Swayne's ankle is still swollen and slightly sprained, but he is expected to play despite missing time in the second half of last week's game against Atlanta.

Left tackle Jonathan Ogden had a neck sprain last week and was removed from the field on a stretcher during the first half. His practice time has been limited, and the Ravens won't make a decision on him until game time.

"I'm getting fitted with a special neck roll on the back of my shoulder pads," Ogden said. "It's been getting better every day. If there's soreness right before the game, I won't play. If not, then I'll be out there."

Both starting defensive tackles, Tony Siragusa and Larry Webster, have been slowed by injuries. Siragusa was playing well before having arthroscopic surgery on his left knee eight days ago. He is expected to play today, but conditioning will be a factor.

Webster played only the first half against the Falcons last week after developing turf toe. He didn't miss any practice time this past week, but the intensity level is a lot different in games.

"Every team has injuries, and they always seem to set in at a certain position," Billick said. "But when you have it at both tackle positions on both sides of the ball, that's stretching it a little bit."

The Ravens will need Siragusa and Webster. The Titans have running back Eddie George, who hasn't had a big game this season. George has rushed for 222 yards on 76 attempts, not the George-like numbers of the past.

But in the first game between the teams last year, Tennessee was in a similar situation against the Ravens, and George had a breakout game of 121 yards on 30 carries in the first game between the teams, a 12-8 Tennessee victory.

"Everybody is eager to see what's going to happen there," said Ravens defensive end Michael McCrary. "They've had success passing the ball, but do they stop and try to attack us up the middle or stay with the pass?"

If the Ravens don't put a pass rush on Tennessee quarterback Neil O'Donnell, the former University of Maryland star, then it could be a long day.

The Titans have a strong receiving corps, led by outside receivers Kevin Dyson (22 catches, 318 yards, two touchdowns), Yancey Thigpen (18, 343, two) and H-back/tight end Frank Wycheck (20, 215), another former Maryland standout.

The Titans have the No. 5 passing attack in the league, and the Ravens are ranked No. 10 in pass defense. The Ravens' cornerbacks, with the exception of rookie Chris McAlister, have struggled.

"Neil is taking advantage of the weapons around him," Billick said. "They have a big-time back and dynamic, big-play receivers. The last time we faced a team with so many weapons was St. Louis in the opener."

Offensively, the Ravens have virtually no choice but to focus their attack around running back Errict Rhett and hope that will open up the play-action passing game.

Rhett is the conference's leading rusher, with 350 yards on 71 attempts. The Titans have the No. 23 rushing defense, allowing an average of 126.8 yards per game.

If the Ravens want to have any success through the air, they will have to know where strong safety Blaine Bishop is at all times. He is the key to coverage, and the Titans move him all over the field. Tennessee loves to blitz.

"We'll have our work cut out for us," Rhett said. "That defense blitzes. They know how to use Blaine Bishop very well. It seems like they've got 15 people out on the field when they come at you. They come from all over the place."

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