Ten questions

THE BALTIMORE SUN

How risky is it to start rookie QB Kyle Boller?

This decision is a pivotal one in Brian Billick's five-year coaching tenure with the Ravens. The best-case scenario: Boller plays well, the Ravens go to the playoffs and the franchise finds itself set for years. The worst case: Boller struggles to the point of losing his confidence and the Ravens take a major step back on the road to the playoffs. The safer choice would have been to start Chris Redman since he likely would throw fewer interceptions and make fewer mistakes. But Billick believes Boller is the better quarterback now despite the poor track record of rookie quarterbacks in the NFL.

Can Ray Lewis return to being the same dominant linebacker?

The scary part is he might be better. Before he went in for shoulder surgery, Lewis said, "When I wake up, I'm going to be a new man." From all indications in training camp and the preseason, he appears to be right. Lewis seems fresher and more determined after missing 11 games last season. Coming back from a shoulder injury likely won't have any residual effect on Lewis' game, which relies more on speed than big hits. Plus, the last time Lewis had something to prove, the Ravens won the Super Bowl.

Will Jamal Lewis lead the league in rushing?

Probably not, but that doesn't mean he won't be one of the top running backs in the league. Lewis' improvement will be measured by his total yards from scrimmage. The Ravens want to make Lewis a bigger part of the passing game with swing passes or dump-down option passes over the middle, especially since they're starting a rookie quarterback. The projection is for Lewis to catch as many as 60 passes, a solid increase from last year's total (47). But this expanded role shouldn't take away carries from Lewis, who remains the centerpiece of the offense.

Who is the Ravens' next Pro Bowl player?

Four Ravens first-round picks have made the Pro Bowl, and Ed Reed could make it five this season. The second-year strong safety lasted until the 24th pick in the 2002 draft because he didn't have optimal speed or size. But his instincts make him one of the Ravens' top playmakers. Whether it's picking off a pass or coming on a blitz, Reed finds ways to be disruptive. If he doesn't make the Pro Bowl for defense, he should for his primary role on special teams. Reed seems like he could block every punt and could deflect two or three this season.

Is Todd Heap a better tight end than the New York Giants' Jeremy Shockey?

That's what everyone has been asking Heap (right) this offseason, but the question should be: Is he better than every other tight end in the league? In his first season as a starter, Heap had more catches (68) than Kansas City's Tony Gonzalez and more touchdowns (six) and a better yards-per-catch average (12.3) than Shockey. To keep defenses from keying on him and to capitalize on Heap's athleticism, the Ravens will line him up as a tight end, wide receiver and fullback.

Will Terrell Suggs make an impact on defense?

Only in passing situations, which comes as a disappointment. The Ravens used the 10th overall pick in the draft with the intent that Suggs would be an every-down player. The college defensive end has been slow to adjust to outside linebacker and isn't even the top backup. The pressure is on Suggs to earn his keep as a rush defensive end and take the opposing offense's focus away from Peter Boulware.

Are the special teams as bad as they looked in the preseason?

If they are, the Ravens are in trouble. This team has traditionally relied on special teams and defense to win games. The Ravens haven't shown a great concern since most of the big plays allowed in punt and kickoff coverage have occurred with the team's core special teams players on the sideline. But eyebrows were raised when punt returner Lamont Brightful and kickoff returner Chester Taylor fumbled in the preseason. The Ravens can't afford such lapses after investing draft picks (Brightful, punter Dave Zastudil and long snapper Joe Maese) and signing free agents (wedge-buster Harold Morrow and kickoff specialist Wade Richey) specifically for special teams.

How much will the defense improve?

This group could make a tremendous leap from last year's No. 22 ranking into the top 10. The difference will be the upgrade of the pass rush and the maturation of the secondary, both of which should decrease the big pass plays. The defense's signature remains its stifling run defense, with Lewis and inside linebacker Ed Hartwell competing for tackles. If nose tackle Kelly Gregg continues to create havoc as he did in the preseason, this defense might be impossible to run against. Although it's unrealistic to make any comparisons to the defense that spearheaded the Super Bowl run in 2000, this defense is built on the same principles -- speed and confidence.

What will it take for the offense to be consistent?

Good decisions by a rookie quarterback, strong play from a ridiculed offensive line and big plays from a small corps of receivers. While the questions are sprinkled throughout, it's time for the offense to take the pressure off the defense. Much of the success will start with the offensive line, which one scout described to Sports Illustrated as "[left tackle] Jonathan Ogden and four schmoes." One of the keys will be how quickly right tackle Orlando Brown can come back from a knee injury. If the line can pass protect as well as it run blocks, then the receivers would need to step up. This group should be better than last year with a maturing Travis Taylor, but Frank Sanders was hurt most of the preseason with dislocated toes and Marcus Robinson was nonexistent for most of the preseason.

Has Billick overestimated his team or are the Ravens a legitimate playoff contender?

Although the odds are stacked against them, the Ravens have a realistic shot to reach the playoffs -- if not win the AFC North -- with a rookie quarterback. The X-factor is how Boller executes controlled game plans, which are designed to allow a much-improved defense to decide the games. The first division title in franchise history is within the Ravens' grasp since defending champion Pittsburgh is showing cracks in its pass defense and running attack. Another factor is the Ravens' favorable schedule, which ranks 21st in the league for difficulty and features just six games against 2002 playoff teams.

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