Ravens line faces a snap judgment

The Baltimore Sun

ATLANTA -- In tonight's preseason finale against the Atlanta Falcons, the Ravens want to escape unscathed.

That includes self-inflicted wounds.

False starts have become the major point of frustration for the Ravens (1-2) this preseason. In their past three quarters of play, the Ravens' starting offense has produced nearly as many false starts (six) as points (10).

If the players continue to jump before the ball is snapped, the offense will struggle no matter how much improvement has been made from last season.

"The biggest thing is once you call it a priority, that's what you focus on," tight end Todd Heap said. "The purpose of the snap count is to be in control. That's something we need to have an advantage over the defense. Obviously, we're going to have to get better at it before [the season opener in] Cincinnati."

Getting back to basics has been the theme heading into the final tuneup before the regular season. Ravens coach Brian Billick has stressed the point in what the players described as "a series of talks."

Billick hasn't threatened the players with any punishment next week if they commit any false starts tonight. With such an experienced team, they understand what is at stake.

"The threat is you're not going to win games by playing that way," receiver Derrick Mason said.

The Ravens have worked on several different snap counts in practice to rectify the problem, but the players won't know if they truly have learned their lesson until their focus is tested by the Georgia Dome crowd and an aggressive Falcons defense.

But Billick and the players know they have only themselves to blame.

"I'm always hesitant to bring it back strictly to the players," Billick said, "but this is one of those things that the players really have to address."

The irritation over the false starts peaked last week in Washington.

Four players - Heap, offensive tackles Adam Terry and Jared Gaither and guard Chris Chester - jumped early in the last 8:13 of the first quarter.

"You can make excuses, but when it comes down to it, we jumped offside," Terry said. "It's hard because you don't want to do it. You want to be productive. But on the other hand, there's got to be that sense of ownership of your game.

"If you keep doing it, you're going to be sitting on the bench. If you don't keep doing it, you're going to be on the field. It's as simple and as easy as that."

Besides the penalties, the other question mark about the offense is how it will adjust if Pro Bowl offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden (hyperextended toe) can't play in the season opener.

The Ravens could stick with Gaither at left tackle, but they might not want to risk a rookie protecting the blind side of quarterback Steve McNair.

The other option is moving Terry from right tackle - where he has played all preseason - to left tackle. Terry was impressive last season when he filled in for Ogden at left tackle.

That would mean the Ravens would either start rookie Marshal Yanda or Gaither on the right side.

This is an issue that could be addressed tonight.

"I'm hoping to be there for Week 1," Ogden said. "If not, we got some contingency plans."

The Ravens' starters are expected to play the first quarter tonight, leaving the majority of the game to the players fighting for their NFL livelihood. By tomorrow, the Ravens need to cut 20 players to get down to their final 53-man roster.

With 49 roster spots likely set, there are seven players (quarterback Troy Smith, receivers Devard Darling and Clarence Moore, guard Brian Rimpf, linebacker Dennis Haley, safety Jamaine Winborne and kickoff specialist Rhys Lloyd) battling for the final four spots.

Said Billick: "I told these guys, 'There's a guy on this club - I don't know who it is - but there's somebody that thinks he made this club that's wrong and there's a guy that thinks he's on the bubble that's going to be on this football team.' I don't know who it is, but they better go in with that attitude."

Notes -- The Ravens' defense also has had troubles with penalties this preseason, committing three on one drive last week. But some players raised eyebrows at the flags. "It's preseason for the referees, too," said linebacker Bart Scott, who was penalized twice on one drive. ... Former Ravens starting quarterback Chris Redman is the backup for the Falcons. It will be the first time he has played against the Ravens since they didn't re-sign him after the 2003 season. "I'm excited to see him get another opportunity and see how he handles that," said Heap, who was Redman's closest friend on the team. ... The Ravens are playing the second leg of a three-game road stretch. They won't play at home until Sept. 16 against the New York Jets. ... The Ravens have won their past three preseason finales.


What to watch for

POSITION -- Defensive line. The Ravens will have their starting defensive line together for the first time this preseason. Although the Ravens have stopped the run for most of the preseason, they are much stronger with nose tackle Kelly Gregg (who had a thigh and knee injury) and defensive tackle Haloti Ngata (knee) side by side.

VETERAN -- Running back Willis McGahee. He has struggled to hit his stride this preseason, gaining 35 yards on 14 carries (2.5-yard average). Take away his 16-yard run in the opener and McGahee has managed just 19 yards on 13 attempts (1.5 avg.).

ROOKIE -- Quarterback Troy Smith. The Heisman Trophy winner has won the No. 3 quarterback job, but not a roster spot. He needs to convince the Ravens he should be placed on the 53-man roster instead of the practice squad.

ON THE BUBBLE --Kickoff specialist Rhys Lloyd. The English kicker has made a strong case for himself since reporting to the Ravens on the last day of training camp. He has placed five of his six kickoffs in the end zone, recording two touchbacks.

INJURY REPORT -- Offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden (toe), receiver Mark Clayton (ankle) and cornerback Samari Rolle (ankle) are out. Linebacker Antwan Barnes (ankle) is not expected to play. Tight end Daniel Wilcox (ankle) is questionable. Safety Ed Reed (thigh bruise) is expected to start.


Cutting edge

The Sun's Jamison Hensley projects the roster as the preseason wraps up. The Ravens need to cut 20 players tomorrow to get down to the final 53-man roster.


In: McNair, Boller.

Bubble: T. Smith.


In: McGahee, Anderson, Mu. Smith, Ross.

Bubble: None.


In: Green, McClain.

Bubble: None.


In: Clayton, Mason, Williams, Figurs.

Bubble: Moore, Darling.

Long shot: R. Bryant, Willis, Linson.

Tight end

In: Heap, Wilcox, Sypniewski.

Long shot: Ballantyne, Freeman.

Offensive line

In: Ogden, Brown, Flynn, Chester, Terry, Grubbs, Gaither, Yanda.

Bubble: Rimpf, Ndukwe, Kracalik.

Long shot: Pino.

Defensive line

In: Pryce, Gregg, Ngata, Bannan, Edwards.

Bubble: Ellison, A. Bryant.

Long shot: Swancutt, Marshall.


In: Suggs, Lewis, Scott, Johnson, Barnes, Stills, Burgess.

Bubble: Haley, Jones.

Long shot: J. Martin, Riddle, Enzor.


In: McAlister, Rolle, Ivy, Pittman, Prude, D. Martin, Oglesby.

Long shot: Gaston.


In: Reed, Landry, Sapp.

Bubble: Winborne.

Special teams

In: Stover (kicker), Koch (punter), Katula (long snapper), Sams (return specialist)

Bubble: Lloyd (kickoff)

NOTES: Linebackers Dan Cody and Mike Smith are on the physically-unable-to-perform list. Running back P.J. Daniels and offensive tackle Steve Edwards are on injured reserve.

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