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Baltimore RAVENS
David Fleming
August 30, 1999
Improved play in the secondary is of primary importance for a team that regularly ranks near the bottom of the league in pass defense
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August 30, 1999

Baltimore Ravens

Improved play in the secondary is of primary importance for a team that regularly ranks near the bottom of the league in pass defense

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DOUBLE DUTY

When Priest Holmes led the Ravens in both rushing yards and receptions last year, it marked only the fifth time since 1936 (the year of the inaugural NFL draft) that an undrafted player had led an NFL team in both of those categories in one season. Unfortunately for the Ravens, they, like the other four teams with such a player, finished well below the .500 mark.

Player, team

Season

W-L

Games

Rushing yards

Receptions

Priest Holmes, Ravens

1998

6-10

16

1,008

43

John Settle, Falcons

1988

5-11

6

1,024

68

Clark Gaines, Jets

1977

3-11

14

595

55

Clark Gaines Jets

1976

3-11

14

724

41

Bob Davis, Boston Yanks

1944

2-8

10

363

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The ravens are entering only their fourth season, but Baltimore's veterans are old pros when it comes to training camp rituals. When the geezers tap their glasses during lunch or dinner, rookies must rise and sing either their alma mater's fight song or a tune off the radio. First-year players can occasionally find their clothes—or themselves—in the team's ice tubs. They must run errands and take veterans out to dinner. The most notable victims in the last two years have been cornerbacks Duane Starks and Chris McAlister, the Ravens' first-round draft picks in 1998 and '99, respectively. As the final part of their initiation, both players also have had to carry teammates' bags during camp.

This year Baltimore may be asking Starks and McAlister to tote more than bags. In 1998 the Ravens finished 24th in the league in pass defense. Baltimore gave up 19 passes of 30 yards or more, including spirit-breaking touchdowns of 67, 72 and 78 yards. "Big plays create such a momentum swing, they are almost impossible to overcome," says defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis. "This was definitely an area of concern, but I think we've made a great improvement."

The pressure to contain the opponent's passing has only intensified since Brian Billick was hired as coach last January. Billick, formerly the Vikings' offensive coordinator, brought his complex attack with him, and until the Ravens master the system, their defense must keep Baltimore in games. One day Starks and McAlister could be the league's best cornerback tandem, but the Ravens need them to play at close to that level right now. "We are going to be good in the secondary," says 13-year veteran Rod Woodson, who will move from cornerback to free safety this season. "The question is, Can we get good fast? We have to, or it's going to be a season of long, long Sundays."

Which is exactly what life has been like for Baltimore fans since Art Modell moved the franchise from Cleveland after the 1995 season. The Ravens have won only 16 games, and poor play in the secondary—Baltimore ranked 30th and 28th in pass defense in 1996 and '97, respectively—has been largely to blame; in fact, since the move the Ravens have started five players at right corner.

Woodson, a member of the NFL's 75th-anniversary team at cornerback, will play free safety for the first time since his senior year at Purdue, in 1986. "I always thought I was a natural safety," he says. "It's the position I started playing when I was nine. I had to work hard and study to be a corner. Safety comes natural."

Paired with third-year strong safety Kim Herring, Woodson will use his superb field vision to freelance a bit more in the zone coverages that Lewis likes to employ behind blitz packages. Part of Woodson's responsibilities involve working with Starks and McAlister, who should be starting by October. Last year Starks started the last eight games, finishing with 19 passes defensed and tied with Raiders cornerback Charles Woodson for the rookie interception lead, with five. Late in the season, however, several quarterbacks exploited Starks's aggressiveness by getting him to bite on double moves and pump fakes. "There's no worse feeling in football than standing there by yourself, praying the quarterback overthrows your man," says Starks. Adds Lewis, the only holdover from former coach Ted Marchibroda's staff, "Yeah, Duane took his lumps last year. He had some great weeks and some not-so-great weeks. But he learned from it, and we can see the results."

The Ravens already like what they see in the physical McAlister. The son of former Eagles and Patriots running back James McAlister, Chris was a consensus All-America at Arizona. Last year he became only the seventh player in college football history to return a punt, a kick-off and an interception for a touchdown in the same season. Selected with the 10th pick in the draft, he was the fifth-highest-rated player on Baltimore's board. "Mac has been better than anyone thought he would be," says Lewis. "That kid has quite a bit of moxie."

The 6'1", 206-pound McAlister has the speed to cover wideouts and the strength to confront the AFC Central's big backs. Equally important, he already understands his role on a defense that features Pro Bowl players such as linebackers Ray Lewis and Peter Boulware and defensive end Michael McCrary. "All we need to do is hold up our men so that the quarterback has to reload and switch reads just once," says McAlister. "By then the pressure should land. You've seen our linebackers. When we shut people down and they get a chance to hit quarterbacks, oh, man, everything in the world just seems to stop."

Everything, the Ravens hope, including the losing.

[This article contains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]

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