Well-balanced Ravens difficult to beat

The Baltimore Sun

I guess you start with Jamal Lewis, right? After all, he scored all three touchdowns yesterday. The last time he did that, well, Moses was still wearing sandals, parting the defensive line and opening up the holes.

Or maybe you focus on the special teams, where B.J. Sams finished the day with more yards than the entire Atlanta Falcons offense.

Of course, there's always the defense, a unit that yesterday managed to hold the Falcons to season lows in rushing yards, passing yards, total yards and third-down efficiency.

Actually, maybe that's the point - it doesn't matter where you start. As opposing coaches will tell you - and as the Ravens illustrated in yesterday's 24-10 win over the Falcons - you're going to have to deal with all of the Ravens' weapons on offense, defense and special teams. There's too much talent to think you can shut down just one part and win the game.

Watching the Ravens play each week is kind of like hearing the doorbell ring and having no idea whom you'll find on the other side of the door. Is it going to be Steve McNair, Todd Heap, Mark Clayton and Derrick Mason? Or Jamal Lewis, Musa Smith and Ovie Mughelli? Or any one of a number of defensive players? Or, as we saw yesterday, it could be Sams, ready to zip through your doorway, spin around the banister and slip through a few pieces of furniture before busting through the back door.

"Brian [Billick] says it all the time: Everybody on our roster at one time or another is going to have to step up and earn his stripes," defensive coordinator Rex Ryan said. "And that's what's happening."

Yesterday was a great example. Entering the game, you had no idea who was going to step up and be the difference-maker. The defense, missing linebacker Ray Lewis for the second straight week, hasn't played to its potential recently, and the offense, while improved from Week 1, still isn't anywhere close to consistent. But in preparation, the Falcons could never afford to focus on a single aspect of the Ravens' attack.

"That's pretty much the way it's going to be around here," said Mason, one of eight players to catch a pass from McNair yesterday.

The potential exists for the kind of balanced attack that really starts paying dividends down the road. These midseason games are like a sneak preview of what could be a pretty exciting feature presentation.

"This is a team that's built to play in November, December and January," Mason said.

Players say they're being careful not to get too far ahead of themselves, but as the season wears on, you can see their focus slowly changing. An 8-2 record - second best in the conference - means that every week, you're a step closer to waking up and realizing that you're not actually dreaming. With a three-game cushion in the AFC North, the Ravens have already positioned themselves as well as anyone could've hoped before the season.

"We're not trying to grow to win a division. We're trying to grow to do something so much greater than that, the goal all teams have," linebacker Bart Scott said, "and I won't mention it."

Yesterday, particularly during the second half, they reminded the rest of the league that the pieces are in place - and they're all over the roster.

With Ray Lewis out of the lineup, Adalius Thomas hurting and Falcons quarterback Michael Vick coming off a couple of bad weeks, the stage could've been set for a series of YouTube-worthy moments by Vick. He's the kind of player who causes defensive coordinators to go without sleep for days.

"I'd rather play Peyton Manning several times than play him again," Ravens defensive end Trevor Pryce said.

Vick had his worst outing of the season, held to 127 yards in the air and 54 on the ground. His offense never found a rhythm, and every other opponent on the Ravens' schedule is going to face the same difficulties.

Collectively, all the pieces of the roster are starting to complement each other. They're feeding off one another, passing the momentum around like a baton.

"It's going to be that much tougher to come out and beat a Ravens team if we're clicking on all cylinders," Mason said.

"This is a team. It's a reflection of everybody," he said. "It's not just one guy."

They've put all the pieces together for one solid half of football each of the past two weeks. To win games over the next several weeks, they could probably squeeze out wins by simply alternating: letting the defense dominate one week, riding Jamal Lewis the next, letting McNair air it out another.

But eking out victories isn't enough, and when they hit the part of the season when the losers pack their bags every weekend, the Ravens want opposing teams to answer the doorbell and see 53 guys smiling through the peephole.

So, no, whether you're talking about Sams or Jamal Lewis or the linebacker corps, it doesn't really matter where you start. As they've been saying all season long, it only matters where you finish.


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