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Super Bowl Ravens study '06 team picture

Michael McCrary and Rob Burnett remain unconvinced.

For a good part of this season, media and fans have showered the current Ravens team with questions about whether it is reminiscent of the 2000 squad that won the Super Bowl .

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Ravens coach Brian Billick and the players have shied away from making any such comparisons, and McCrary and Burnett - two critical cogs of the 2000 defense - did the same.

"I don't think it's fair to anybody but especially them," Burnett, a former defensive end, said of the current team. "I think this '06 Ravens have their own identity. The 2000 team was built differently."

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In 2000, Burnett said, everybody knew how the Ravens would line up defensively, but they dominated anyway.

"This team is [dominating] in other ways," he said. "They've got guys running free for sacks and making so many huge plays on defense. So they're a little more exciting to watch, I think, than the 2000 team."

Many have tried to match up the defenses, which share similarities. The unit in 2000 was ranked second in fewest yards allowed and first in fewest points surrendered. The current squad is first in both categories.

McCrary, another former defensive end, said the biggest difference is on offense.

"It looks very similar to our team that won the Super Bowl except they have a better offense than we did," McCrary said. "Back then, basically all we needed was Matt Stover to kick three field goals, and we were in the game. But now instead of field goals, they're actually scoring touchdowns."

The one thing that McCrary, Burnett, linebacker Brad Jackson and fullback Chuck Evans share is an impartial view of the current Ravens team. Each player offered his thoughts on the squad's strengths, concerns and destination.

Rob Burnett

Strengths: To Burnett, the key to the Ravens' success has been a defense that boasts playmakers at practically every position and the coaching of defensive coordinator Rex Ryan.

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But the unit's most important asset is its speed. "They're very fast," he said. "If you watch them, they usually outrun most teams. ... It's something that sticks out. A lot of times, you can see these guys just consume the offense. It's kind of exciting to watch."

Concerns: While the running game - ranked 25th in the league - worries Burnett, his biggest trepidation involves an offense that has scored just 22 touchdowns in 52 trips inside the opponents' 20-yard line, a red-zone touchdown percentage (.423) that ranked 28th in the NFL.

"This team is not going to be able to shut those teams out, and [the remaining teams in the AFC playoffs are] going to score on them," he said. "So the offense has to score in turn."

Destination: Still a player at heart, Burnett declined to look past Saturday's opponent, the Indianapolis Colts. "You never get ahead of yourself in this league," he said. "They're going to have to address some of the running game issues and the red-zone offense in order to ensure a trip to Miami."

Chuck Evans

Strengths: As much as quarterback Steve McNair has improved the offense, Evans has been impressed with the play of defensive tackles Kelly Gregg and Haloti Ngata and defensive end Trevor Pryce.

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"To me, it's the down linemen," Evans said. "Coming out in the beginning of the year, I thought that was going to be probably one of the weaker areas. When you've got defensive linemen putting pressure on the quarterback, then you don't have to blitz all of the time. When the front four can get to the quarterback, that's a huge asset for any defense."

Concerns: Evans saves his biggest reservation for a secondary that has occasionally surrendered big passing plays, including 10 touchdown passes of at least 25 yards.

"They're such a veteran-savvy group that they tend to take chances," he said. "I don't know if going into this weekend's game with [quarterback] Peyton Manning, you can do that. I think you have to play soundly. Their nature, their competitiveness is going to have them take some chances and hopefully, in the end, that doesn't hurt."

Destination: Evans agrees with some pundits about the strength of the AFC. "By far, the AFC games will be way tougher than any NFC team. So basically, if they can win out in the AFC, I think they would probably win in the Super Bowl, but they have to get past this game first."

Brad Jackson

Strengths: Jackson was effusive in his praise of the way Ryan capitalizes on the talents of his players, but tabbed the personnel additions general manager Ozzie Newsome made as the biggest difference for the Ravens.

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"These guys get along almost as good as we did in 2000," Jackson said. "In 2000, we were young, but guys really, really cared about each other. We had guys spend a lot of time at each other's houses and really hang out at the facility. These guys are doing the same thing. With all the hype and hoopla of so many stars, they haven't shunned the light, which is what destroys so many NFL teams. And that goes to Brian Billick and Ozzie Newsome for building this team with guys that are able to control their egos and put their egos aside for the good of the cause of winning."

Concerns: Jackson called the season-ending ankle injury that sidelined return specialist B.J. Sams in Week 12 against the Cincinnati Bengals the team's biggest loss.

"It's been my concern that the special teams is averaging, I think, 4 or 5 yards on punt returns and 20 or 21 yards on kickoff returns," Jackson said. "At some point in time, the defense is going to have a breakdown and the offense may not be clicking. In our year, we had Jermaine Lewis, and we took pride in special teams. ... That's my biggest concern, them getting the return game really going, because they're going to need a big return at some point in time, and these guys are capable of doing it."

Destination: Jackson would not put any limits on the Ravens' future. "They can go as far as they want to go," he said. "They have probably the most balanced team in the NFL. Defensively, you know what you're going to get. Offensively, you have a winner. Steve's brought them back two or three times this year, and he's just the calm in the middle of the storm. They can go all the way to Miami, but this year, it's going to be extremely tough."

Michael McCrary

Strengths: Noting the team's toughness and effort, McCrary saved his biggest compliment for the presence of McNair.

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"The most obvious strength is McNair and the way he's able to hold it back there and control the ball," McCrary said. "It doesn't matter if you're a good quarterback when you're throwing interceptions. You need someone to control the ball. ... He's made a huge difference."

Concerns: McCrary pointed to the Ravens' 13-7 loss to the Bengals - the team's only setback in its last 10 contests - as an example of what can happen when an opposing offense picks up the blitzes.

"If they don't get there on the blitz, then they're a little vulnerable," he said. "Cincinnati made that pretty apparent. That was one of the few moments where I saw where they were picking up the blitz."

Destination: Still, McCrary wasn't about to doom the Ravens to the offseason. "There's no such thing as a team without a weakness," he said. "Just because there's a weakness doesn't mean that the weakness is going to cost you the game. They've got so many strengths that it's hardly a weakness."

edward.lee@baltsun.com


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