Champs go back to work


Seven months and 11 days after the Ravens hoisted the Super Bowl trophy, it's time to initiate the return mission.

After a month of dealing with devastating injuries, an abruptly canceled preseason opener and an arrest and release of a teammate, it's time to test the mettle of the defending champions.

The long-anticipated start to the regular season will kick off at 1 p.m. today at PSINet Stadium following fireworks, a trophy procession and an unveiling of the championship signs that will be on permanent display at the stadium. The NFL's gift to the party is the rebuilding Chicago Bears.

The Ravens say they will not look past the Bears. Instead, they intend to run over them.

"It's not going to take this team anything at all to get pumped up," All-Pro middle linebacker Ray Lewis said. "You can see the energy at practice. In just a walk-through, the energy was like, 'Wow.' When the coaches have to tell you to slow down, that's when you know you're ready to take your game to another level."

The Ravens want to establish a tone with their defense, an identity with their offense.

The personality of the offense begins to take shape as the Ravens continue to adjust to life with new quarterback Elvis Grbac and without star running back Jamal Lewis. The cheers over the crisp passing by Grbac in the preseason have been tempered by a season-ending knee injury to Lewis and an arm injury to right tackle Leon Searcy that has him sidelined until October.

The Ravens have replaced them by adding running back Terry Allen and promoting right tackle Sammy Williams. Incidentally, Williams will be making his first NFL start today.

"I think with the guys we have up front and the guys we have in the backfield, I think they could be a very complement for us," said Grbac, who is one of four new starters on the Ravens' offense. "Will it happen overnight? We'll have to see. But as the year goes on, it's a 16-game journey. This is the first test."

The running games for both teams are on the hot seat for different reasons. Bears running back James Allen tops the Ravens defense's most-wanted list, while the team's offense must cope with changes.

The Ravens plan to spell Terry Allen throughout the game with Jason Brookins and Moe Williams. The success of this group rests on the effectiveness of the interior line - left guard Edwin Mulitalo, center Mike Flynn and right guard Kipp Vickers - in opening holes.

Chicago's defense has been built using a blueprint similar to the Ravens'. In playing the run, the Bears will rely on their two space-eating tackles up front. Ted Washington and Keith Traylor shield blockers in the trenches so that middle linebacker Brian Urlacher can operate freely.

The pivotal matchup today will be between Vickers and Washington, with the 300-pound Vickers giving away 55 pounds. A full-time starter for the first time in his seven-year career, Vickers has to hold his own against the three-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle.

"If we can't block, the offense just doesn't work," Vickers said. "So, it starts up front. We have to get our thing going. No excuses. No nothing."

The story line surrounding James Allen has only served to fire up the Ravens' attacking mentality on defense.

Allen represents the defense's last lapse, the only running back to crack 100 yards against the Ravens in nearly three years. Since that game, the Ravens haven't allowed a running back to reach 92 yards against them in 37 games, stopping the likes of Barry Sanders, Eddie George, Emmitt Smith, Marshall Faulk and Jerome Bettis.

"I don't have to respect anyone," Ray Lewis said. "But I don't ever disrespect anyone. I will never disrespect what he [Allen] does, but he knows what he's coming to face."

Still in possession of the game ball and gloves from that 163-yard effort in 1998, Allen draws some motivation from that performance.

"That's something to build off of," Allen said. "It gives us an opportunity to reflect and know it is possible."

The only uncertainty with the Ravens' defense is at cornerback.

Chris McAlister appears ready to go despite an ankle injury, while Duane Starks is going to be a game-time decision with a knee injury. If Starks cannot start, he will be replaced by James Trapp.

"If you're not close to 100 percent, you can't play that position," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "So, I'm not going to put them at risk or ourselves."

In this apparently lopsided matchup, the Bears are feeding on the lack-of-respect angle despite no venomous words leaking from the Ravens' locker room. In fact, the Ravens' scouting department has rated the personnel on Chicago's defense among the top five in the league.

"They obviously feel like we're a bye," Bears defensive coordinator Greg Blache said. "There's been other byes that have come in and bit people. We hope to stand up and bite people, also. Rocky was just a fill-in for Apollo Creed, you know. We'll see."

Under other circumstances, the Ravens may have had a rough time focusing on this game, considering they are the league's biggest favorite this week at 10 points and are going against a Chicago team that hasn't had a winning record since 1995.

But they're are trying to avoid that Bears trap.

"I don't know if anybody looks past the opener," Billick said.

Especially not this opener.

"It will be the start of a season that the team will never forget," defensive tackle Tony Siragusa said. "It's going to be my first chance to go out that tunnel as the defending world champ. That's when the adrenalin really starts flowing. It's going to be great."

Ravens today

Opponent: Chicago Bears

Site: PSINet Stadium

Time: 1 p.m.

TV/Radio: Ch. 45/WJFK (1300 AM), WQSR (105.7 FM)

Line: Ravens by 10

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