Focused Ravens eye postseason

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Brian Billick has heard the buzz, and the buzz is good.

Since the end of his first season as Ravens coach, Billick has had an estimated 30 speaking engagements. The feedback he got from the general fandom was enlightening.

"I sensed a real enthusiasm and passion for what's going on," Billick said. "We've got to follow up. The fans have certain expectations. And we have certain expectations.

"Now, anything less than the playoffs would not be living up to those expectations."

Billick's second season starts Sunday, when players report to Western Maryland College for training camp. Here are some of the issues the Ravens will address over the next month:

1. What does tight end Shannon Sharpe bring to the offense?

Veteran leadership and a menacing presence in the middle of the field that will benefit the Ravens' wide receivers. Last season, five different tight ends caught a total of 34 passes in Billick's offense. Except for last year when he was injured, Sharpe hasn't caught fewer than that since 1991, his second NFL season. Three times in the '90s, he's had 80 or more catches.

The defense will have to deal with Sharpe running free on those intermediate routes, and that should open the deep routes for Qadry Ismail, Patrick Johnson, Travis Taylor and company.

Nearly as valuable is Sharpe's leadership and Super Bowl background with the Denver Broncos. Been there, done that. On a young offense, he can point the way.

2. Will quarterback Tony Banks elevate his game to the playoff level?

Billick obviously believes he can. Banks had a different quarterbacks coach each of his three years with the St. Louis Rams, so consecutive seasons under Matt Cavanaugh will create more continuity. Not only should Banks be more comfortable in Billick's offense, but he'll also have more weapons. Plus, his talent and Billick's scheme are an ideal match: big arm, quick strikes, explosive scheme.

Banks says he learned a better work ethic last season after his disappointment of being demoted to third string. Now we'll find out if it's true.

3. Does Trent Dilfer pose a threat to Banks?

Only if Banks retreats to the erratic state of his St. Louis past. He no longer has the luxury of leaning on potential. This year, Banks must produce. If he doesn't, Dilfer, a seven-year veteran unleashed from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' vanilla offense, will get to run the offense of his dreams.

4. How will linebacker Ray Lewis' courtroom drama affect his on-field persona?

Minimally, if at all. Lewis was the first to reap the benefit of Sharpe's personality. The two worked out together during the murder trial in Atlanta and after it. Billick says Lewis is in better shape than he was a year ago. Physically, that's the answer, then.

Opposing teams will try to bait Lewis. Opposing crowds will taunt him. But they may be feeding the tackle monster. When it comes to intensity, Lewis seemingly lives for the roar of the crowd.

5. Will linebacker Peter Boulware be ready for the regular season?

Tendinitis slowed Boulware's shoulder rehabilitation this summer and created a cloud of doubt. Boulware insists he'll be ready for the start of the season. The Ravens can only hope.

Boulware's shoulder was still sore this week. That's a concern. But then again, he registered 10 sacks last season playing with one arm. He's proven he can do it.

6. In what areas have the Ravens most improved?

The passing game and special teams. The addition of Sharpe and Taylor to the receiving corps upgrades an overachieving group. Running back Jamal Lewis has shown he can catch the ball out of the backfield, too. They've got more weapons.

Special teams play last season was troublesome. Punt returner Jermaine Lewis must have a comeback season, and that is his priority. The Ravens brought in two veteran special teams players - O.J. Brigance from the Miami Dolphins and Dennis Stallings from the Tennessee Titans - to join Billy Davis and Bennie Thompson. How can they not be better?

7. Which positions will have the most competition at training camp?

Strong safety should have one of the fiercest competitions. Kim Herring is the incumbent, coming off an excellent off-season. But he must carry it over into camp to hold off Corey Harris, who has earned a shot at the job, and second-year man Anthony Poindexter.

Aligning the wide receivers presents another challenge. Ismail and Johnson are the starters in camp. But Jermaine Lewis could push Johnson, and Taylor could wind up almost anywhere. Then there's Marcus Nash and Brandon Stokley. It could be a mad - but healthy - scramble.

Right guard will be another battle to watch. Mike Flynn gets first crack at replacing Jeff Blackshear, and behind him are Kipp Vickers, Orlando Bobo and Damon Denson.

8. Of those who left, which players will the team miss most?

Running back Errict Rhett because of his locker room repartee, offensive lineman Everett Lindsay because of his versatility and cornerback DeRon Jenkins - yes, DeRon Jenkins - because he could cover outside or inside last year.

9. Will suspended defensive tackle Larry Webster be back?

Indications are he'll have a chance. It's a bonus to bring a fresh tackle into the rotation, and it could be crucial if there's an injury in the line. Webster must pass all his drug tests between now and then, though.

10. Was wide receiver Marcus Nash a minicamp flash or the real deal?

Nash may have had the best set of off-season camps of any receiver (although Jermaine Lewis was awfully close). If he continues to perform in training camp, he thrusts himself into the picture at wide receiver in a big way.

But as Billick pointed out, if he had played that way at Denver or Miami, he wouldn't have been available in the first place.

11. Which unsung player has the best chance to win a starting job?

Either Harris, a versatile nine-year veteran who's been with five teams, or Poindexter, who has rehabilitated himself from knee surgery, at strong safety.

12. Is offensive guard, with Edwin Mulitalo and Flynn set as starters, the weak link of the team?

Not in Billick's mind. The combination of Mulitalo and Flynn is more athletic than the Ravens have had. Billick says the center-guard group worked harder collectively and individually than any other group in the off-season. If Flynn doesn't work out, the Ravens have a six-year veteran in Vickers, who started one playoff game at tackle for Washington.

13. Whatever happened to running back Jay Graham?

The star-crossed, fourth-year veteran is fighting for his professional life. He's likely the third-team running back behind Jamal Lewis and Priest Holmes, and targeted for special teams.

14. Has split end Qadry Ismail established himself or was last year a fluke?

Ismail's 68-catch season, worth 1,105 yards and six touchdowns, was not a fluke, even if some of those TD catches against Pittsburgh were. He's been in Billick's system longer than any other receiver here, and presumably knows it better. He won't be easy to dislodge.

15. In what ways can the NFL's No. 2 defense improve?

Let defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis count the ways: "Point scoring, third downs, red zone and takeaways."

As a team, the Ravens allowed 17.3 points per game, third best in the AFC. The defense ranked eighth in the AFC on third-down, eighth in the red zone and tied for sixth with 31 takeaways.

And still, they were the second-ranked defense in the NFL.

16. Which players are most likely to have a breakout year?

Wide receiver Johnson will get the opportunity to capitalize on his blazing speed. If he does, Banks will be a big part of the equation, too. On defense, cornerback Chris McAlister appears ready to make the leap to Pro Bowl candidate after one season.

17. Has the operation of the franchise changed in any significant way with the arrival of minority owner Stephen Bisciotti?

Only in the sense it alleviated the debt crunch and allowed the Ravens to chase - and catch - some quality free agents.

18. What was Billick's biggest accomplishment last season?

With a group of receivers nobody wanted, and despite two quarterbacks who played their way out of the lineup, Billick rejuvenated the offense and had the Ravens within striking distance of the playoffs in December.

Talk about turnarounds. In their first seven games, the Ravens averaged 13.5 points and 268.4 yards. In their last nine, they averaged 25.4 points and 322.6 yards. Billick pulled the team out of mediocrity and put it in the fast lane.

19. What was his biggest mistake?

Placing too much confidence in quarterbacks Scott Mitchell (.429 completion percentage) and Stoney Case (.453).

20. Will the Ravens make the playoffs this year?

They should, despite a schedule that features five road games in the first seven. They went through three quarterbacks, were inept offensively for nearly half the season, lost four games by three points - and still went 8-8. It's not hard to envision a small jump to 9-7, or a bigger one to 10-6.

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