Season changes; Ravens don't

The Baltimore Sun

After six weeks of practice and four preseason games, there are just as many questions about the Ravens going into the regular season as there were entering training camp.

In fact, the 2007 Ravens look a lot like the old Ravens. Their formula for success has remained the same: great defense, good special teams and inconsistent offense.

But have the Ravens tweaked the offense enough to get them deep into the playoffs, or possibly into the Super Bowl?

We'll begin to find out in Monday night's season opener in Cincinnati.

During the offseason, we heard the Ravens talk about getting "explosive" plays and going more "vertical" with the passing game, but we've seen little of that in the preseason. And don't expect to see much of a face-lift of this offense Monday night, either.

The Ravens held back a little in the preseason, but they're going to stay with their philosophy of being a run-oriented team that also relies on short, play-action passes.

As for this season's defense, it might be better than last year's group, which ranked No. 1 in the NFL. The Ravens need veterans Ray Lewis, Trevor Pryce and Samari Rolle to remain healthy, and that will be the X-factor.

But there are other things that make this defense better. Rolle played poorly last season but came into training camp healthy. Before an ankle injury sidelined him in the preseason, he was extremely aggressive, and he should be ready for the opener.

Two of the unit's best players are on a mission. Linebacker Bart Scott played in the Pro Bowl last season but was an alternate because of an injury to Lewis. He wants to prove he can make it on his own merit. Pro Bowl outside linebacker-end Terrell Suggs has dollar signs swimming around in his head because this is the final year of his contract.

Pardon the expression, but you can bank on him having a good season.

Safety Dawan Landry and tackle Haloti Ngata are beginning their second seasons. Both are bigger, stronger and faster. Even with outside linebacker Jarret Johnson struggling in pass coverage in replacing Adalius Thomas, this group could surpass last year's, which led the NFL in fewest points (12.6) and yards (264.1) allowed and finished second in take-aways (40).

The special teams should be nearly as good. If there is one person this organization can't afford to lose, it's general manager Ozzie Newsome. He just keeps finding good, athletic players who can contribute right away as starters or on special teams.

The Ravens hit a bonanza with rookie linebackers Antwan Barnes, Prescott Burgess and Edgar Jones. All can play on special teams, and Barnes will see some action rushing the passer on third down. When kicker Matt Stover had a slow start in training camp, you wondered if this was the year that age finally caught up with him.

No. He's as automatic as ever, and second-year punter Sam Koch is becoming just as consistent. Rookie Yamon Figurs easily could push B.J. Sams out as the return specialist sometime during the season if he stops fumbling .

So, that leaves the offense. It's always the offense. Questions, questions, questions.

Willis McGahee was supposed to improve the running game, but there have been no signs that will happen. Of course, it takes time, but where's the burst? Where is the runner who supposedly can take control of a game? Maybe it will happen during the regular season because a lot of veteran players hold back, but, so far, not so good.

With all the new faces on the offensive line, you knew it was going to take time to build a strong, cohesive unit. But with left tackle Jonathan Ogden's toe still ailing and his status questionable for the Bengals game, how much does this set the unit back? If Ogden sits out, the Ravens will have to move starting right tackle Adam Terry to the left side and insert rookie Marshal Yanda to replace Terry.

More important, can this team pass protect for quarterback Steve McNair and keep him healthy? In the third preseason game against the Washington Redskins, McNair took a beating and played only two quarters. Without McNair, this team will have big trouble.

There were times in the preseason when the Ravens have looked smooth offensively. McNair has mastered the short passing game, using tight end Todd Heap and receivers Derrick Mason and Mark Clayton.

Second-year receiver Demetrius Williams had an excellent training camp. He was poised in his routes and showed the physical presence he lacked a year ago. He can become a vertical threat, but the concerns are more about McNair's arm strength. He hasn't been consistent as far as accuracy in throwing intermediate to long passes since he joined the Ravens last season.

Doesn't this all sound familiar? Weren't we asking these same questions last year?

It's basically the same team with the same M.O., but apparently the Ravens feel they have made enough improvements to get to where they want to be in the end.

But we won't know until the beginning, which starts Monday night in Cincinnati for the Ravens, a new team that looks a lot like the old one.

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