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> 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 without AD."
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 Samari Rolle.
"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 Billick.
"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."