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Ten questions1. Can Shannon Sharpe and Ben...

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Ten questions

1. Can Shannon Sharpe and Ben Coates recreate their tight end magic in Baltimore?

Here's the past: Between them, they have been to 12 Pro Bowls. They were voted the top two tight ends of the 1990s. They rank second and fifth, respectively, for career catches by a tight end. Both have been to the Super Bowl.

Here's the future: Sharpe, in his 11th season, likely will become a go-to target for Tony Banks, especially in the red zone, where the Ravens struggled a year ago. He can still get open, he can still catch, he can still score. He was a great addition. Coates will be helpful in the two-tight-end package when he draws a mismatch and as a blocker.

2. How quickly can running back Jamal Lewis become the feature back?

Lewis' progress was slowed in preseason when he dislocated his left elbow and missed three weeks of practice. He still must prove he can hold up physically, but when healthy, he's the real deal. A powerful runner, Lewis has the speed to break big gainers. Better yet, the Ravens want to utilize his ability to catch passes. Like Sharpe, he will be a force in the red zone.

Most likely, though, Lewis will get his assignments in increments, working behind Priest Holmes. Sometime about midseason, Lewis could be expected to take over.

3. Can the defense improve its No. 2 ranking?

It can, and most likely will. Defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis stressed turnovers in training camp, and the Ravens responded with 11, including seven interceptions. They also recorded 17 sacks in four games. The return of tackle Tony Siragusa shored up the run defense, and they didn't allow a 100-yard rusher a season ago.

Defensive end Mike McCrary is healthy after a series of knee surgeries, outside linebacker Peter Boulware is playing full-speed again and cornerback Chris McAlister appears headed for a Pro Bowl season. This could be the best defense in the NFL.

4. What does a healthy Boulware mean to the defense?

Playing with abandon, Boulware will wreak havoc on opposing offenses. He and McCrary should form one of the league's most effective pass-rushing combinations. At the very least, he will force teams to overload to his side, creating potential mismatches.

5. Will Jermaine Lewis resuscitate his career as a punt returner?

Lewis made the commitment in the off-season to regain his 1998 Pro Bowl form, and he showed signs through the preseason he had made it back. Physically, he's stronger as a result of his off-season training. Mentally, he's put his disappointing 1999 season behind him. The result is that he's also made a comeback as a receiver.

6. Will the special teams miss Bennie Thompson?

They will, to an extent. They will miss his leadership, his dedication to the job and his willingness to break up a wedge. But the expectation is that Thompson, 37, can teach the young players to do the things on the field that made him so popular. As an assistant coach now, Thompson can still exert his influence on this group.

7. Will wide receiver Travis Taylor make an impact in the passing game?

Taylor missed nine days of training camp in a contract dispute and still missed only one preseason game. His experience at Florida appears to be paying off. He had five catches in the preseason, and looked more comfortable with each outing. He has shown he can get deep, and he has shown he can make the sideline catch. In the Ravens' passing tree, he will become a prime target.

8. Does the offensive line have enough depth?

This is the area that looks most vulnerable on paper. Spencer Folau is a proven commodity as the swing tackle behind Jonathan Ogden and Harry Swayne. Kipp Vickers, out with a knee injury now, can go at tackle or guard. And Orlando Bobo can swing between guard and center. The depth could be tested quickly, because right guard Mike Flynn hobbled through the preseason with a foot injury.

9. Can Sam Gash and Obafemi Ayanbadejo replace departed Chuck Evans?

Gash was the AFC's Pro Bowl fullback the past two years, so the answer appears to be yes. But the Ravens get a break with this combination of backs. Ayanbadejo earned more playing time on offense in the preseason, particularly as a receiver out of the backfield. Gash can catch, too, and he's a very good blocker. As much as it hurt to waive the injured Evans, the Ravens seem to have added a new dimension to the position.

10. Has coach Brian Billick created a paper tiger, or are the Ravens a playoff contender?

Injuries can always change the course of the season, but going in, the Ravens appear to have enough offensive weapons to challenge for a playoff spot in the AFC. Certainly, their defense is playoff-caliber, if not Super Bowl-caliber. And that defense can carry the offense until the double-tight-end package clicks. This is no paper tiger.

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