For Leinart, a new ballgame

The Baltimore Sun

Matt Leinart lost only two games in three seasons as Southern California's starting quarterback, twice leading the Trojans to the national championship and winning the Heisman Trophy as a junior.

It took just two weeks as the starting quarterback for the Arizona Cardinals for Leinart to match that loss total during his rookie NFL season a year ago. It took an additional month for Leinart to win his first game, against the Detroit Lions.

"In college, we went out every single Saturday expecting to win, knowing that we would win," Leinart said earlier this week. "Around here, people want to win. This team wants to win. ... We're not that far off."

Coming off a 23-20 victory at home over the Seattle Seahawks, Leinart might be facing his most formidable task as a pro when Arizona (1-1) plays the Ravens (1-1) on Sunday at M&T; Bank Stadium.

Ranked first in the NFL in overall defense a year ago, the Ravens are currently fourth, but only 13th against the pass. Their near collapse against the New York Jets in Sunday's 20-13 win might give the Cardinals and their second-year quarterback some hope.

"Obviously, it's a tough challenge for me," Leinart, 24, said during a teleconference with reporters in Owings Mills.

"I had some tough challenges last year. I played very badly in the opening game of the [2007] season against a tough defense [the San Francisco 49ers']. I've never seen a defense like Baltimore."

Since taking over from Kurt Warner, Leinart has shown the talent that made him one of the most successful college quarterbacks in history, as well as some of the limitations that caused NFL teams to be skeptical, dropping Leinart to 10th overall in the 2006 draft.

After an impressive early performance in which he threw four touchdowns and one interception in his first two starts, Leinart played as inconsistently as most rookies, finishing with 11 touchdowns and 12 interceptions while completing 56.8 percent of his passes for 2,547 yards.

"I just have to continue getting better as a quarterback," said Leinart, whose 405-yard game against the Minnesota Vikings broke former Cardinal Jake Plummer's NFL record for a rookie quarterback.

"Physically, I've just got to continue to get stronger. Mentally, I have to get better, and that's something I've been taking pride in, especially in the last week. I'm just trying to put in all the extra time I need as a quarterback to be successful in this league."

Coming off a disappointing 2007 debut in which he completed 14 of 28 passes for 102 yards with two interceptions and a touchdown in the loss to the 49ers, Leinart was 23-for-37 for 299 yards, with a touchdown and an interception, in a win over the Seattle Seahawks.

First-year Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt, who came to Arizona from the Pittsburgh Steelers, has been asked often to compare the left-handed Leinart with Ben Roethlisberger, who, in his second year, helped the Steelers win a Super Bowl after being one of the league's top rookies.

"One thing I see similar to Ben is a passion for the game, a guy that's proud and wants to be good," Whisenhunt said of Leinart, who at 6 feet 5 and 232 pounds is about an inch shorter and 20 pounds lighter than Roethlisberger.

"It was our good fortune to have such a good young quarterback in Ben that we could do a lot of things with him. I feel the same way with Matt."

Whisenhunt said Leinart made "significant improvement" from his first game to his second game this season.

Asked about adjusting to Whisenhunt's system that appears to be more balanced than that of former Cardinals coach Dennis Green, Leinart said:

"It's been tough. There's so much going on, trying to adjust to the game itself, the NFL in general. Running a totally different system, it's been tough. I want to keep taking steps forward until ... I know it like the back of my hand."

The Ravens hope to take advantage of Leinart's inexperience and lack of mobility, as well as the fact the Cardinals might have similar tendencies to those the Steelers used to show when Whisenhunt was their offensive coordinator from 2004 through 2006.

During that stretch, the Ravens won four of six meetings, including a sweep last season.

Linebacker Bart Scott feigned surprise to hear that Leinart is in only his second NFL season.

"I thought Matt Leinart had been in the league for six years," Scott said. "I thought USC was one of those programs. He's a young QB? We're just going to try to do what we do.

"Whenever you play an opponent you're not familiar with, it's a feeling-out process. The good thing is that we know kind of their tendencies because of the history with their coaches."

Leinart watched tape of the Ravens' most recent game, when their secondary had problems in the fourth quarter against Jets quarterback Kellen Clemens, making his first NFL start. Clemens had three potential game-tying touchdown passes dropped in the last two minutes.

"I thought Kellen did a good job," Leinart said. "He took a pounding that game, but he answered the call. It's tough to go into Baltimore and beat them; it's a very hard thing to do. We've got to go out there and just trust in our preparation. Hopefully, we can put some points on the board."

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