McNair & Co. will benefit from running the same offense from the get-go.
at Cincinnati (M)
at San Diego
NEW ENGLAND (M)
at San Francisco
at Pittsburgh (M)
The King 500
88Chris McAlister, Cornerback
At 6' 1", 206 pounds, the three-time Pro Bowl corner looks more like a hard-hitting safety than one of the NFL's elite cover men. He's started 114 games as a Raven and along with Ray Lewis is one of only two starting defenders left from the 2000 Super Bowl team. He plays now with a sense of purpose and history. "We're not just trying to be the best defense this year," he says. "We're trying to be the best defense in the history of the game."
The defense is playing at a historically high level, but postseason hopes hinge on whether the attack can keep up
For the first time since 2001 Jamal Lewis will not be the team's primary
ballcarrier. The Ravens cut ties with Lewis on the last day of February and
eight days later sent three draft picks to the Bills for Willis McGahee, who
they hope will be more explosive and creative than the north-south Lewis.
Quarterback Steve McNair, 34, who signed late and had to learn on the job in
2006, now has a full season behind him of running the Baltimore offense.
Coach Brian Billick, who fired his offensive coordinator (and close friend)
Jim Fassel in mid-October and assumed the play-calling duties, will run the show
from Day One. "The defense wants us to be more productive and aggressive on
offense," says Billick. "That's the goal."
That defense, which was ranked first in the NFL, will have to adapt to life
without linebacker Adalius Thomas, who took his uncommon play-making ability to
New England as a $35 million unrestricted free agent.
WHERE THEY'RE HEADED
The Ravens' defense is in the midst of a run of historic proportions. It
gave up just 264.1 yards a game last year, the best in the NFL by an
astounding 19.5 yards, and it hasn't allowed more than 20 points per game since
2002. Thomas's departure created headlines, but every other significant defender
on the team returns. "We keep it moving around here," says veteran middle
linebacker and team leader Ray Lewis. "We feel real good about the defense, even
Thomas was listed as an outside linebacker in the Ravens' 3-4 system, but he
functioned at various times as an edge pass rusher, a curl-zone pass defender or
even a deep safety. Jarret Johnson, a 6' 3", 270-pound run-stopping specialist,
will help fill the void left by Thomas's departure, as will safety Gerome Sapp.
More important, Lewis (even at age 32), the improving Bart Scott and sack
specialist Terrell Suggs are as good as any other linebacking corps in the
league. The rest of the Ravens' defense is dotted with All-Pros present and
future: tackle Haloti Ngata, safety Ed Reed and cornerbacks Chris McAlister and
"There are times in the last few years when we've had to play without Ray,
without Ed, without a lot of people," says defensive coordinator Rex Ryan. "We
won't ask anybody to do the things AD did, but we'll get those things done with
a number of people. You look around here: If you make our defense, you're a
pretty darn good defensive player. And we will play good defense."
The goal on offense is to take some of the pressure off that defense. Last
season the Ravens started 2-0, averaging 27.5 points a game, but then
scored only 55 points over the next four weeks, leading Billick to take
over the offense after two straight losses. With him calling the shots, the
Ravens went 9-1, and they ranked ninth in scoring in the NFL in that span as
McNair's quarterback rating improved from 64.1 under Fassel to 92.9 under
"You've got to give the man credit for taking a stand," says McNair. "Brian
decided if he was going to get fired, he was going to go down calling his own
plays. He was using the same playbook as Fassel, but he was more aggressive. He
went for big plays. He stepped things up. He wanted to make runs look like
passes and passes look like runs. I think we did a pretty good job."
With an entire off-season to prepare for running the offense, Billick says to
expect more of the same, only better. And he's relishing a more hands-on role.
"Now when I wake up in the middle of the night," he says, "I'm thinking about
whether I should put the fullback in the flat, not about our salary-cap
He is also thinking about how to use McGahee to further enliven the offense.
"With Jamal we had a lot of success, but we were a fairly downhill team," says
Billick. "We played a physical game and wore you out. Now I think we've evolved.
We're more multiple. And Willis has the ability to get outside and cut, which we
have not had."
McGahee, the Miami product whose horrific knee injury in the 2003 Fiesta Bowl
delayed the start of his NFL career by a full year, gained 3,365 yards in three
seasons with the Bills but only 990 in 2006. The team and the player were sick
of each other. "I left everything in Buffalo behind me," says McGahee. "I've got
everything back on the right track. This place is loaded with talent. It reminds
me of Miami, man. I plan on having some great years here."
His first year should be one of those. The Ravens are in an elite class and
will be in serious contention for the AFC's tightly contested Super Bowl berth.
-- Tim Layden