Salary cap dumping was the battle cry last year, in which the embattled Ravens started 3rd year quarterback Chris Redman after veteran quarterback Elvis Grbac quit football in his prime. Redman became hurt six games into the season, and was relived by Jake Blake.
Blake’s 77.3% quarterback ratings were among the lowest in the American Football Conference. The injury bug continued to plague the Ravens, when All-Pro middle linebacker Ray Lewis played only five-games, and defensive end Michael McCray played in six games.
This season will have all eyes focus on the quarterback position that will have the pundits second guessing if Chris Redman or 2003 first round pick Kyle Boller deserves to run the offense. Redman’s back injury is still a concern of the team, though Redman did not show any discomfort during the pre-season.
Let’s take a look at the 2003 campaign—by offense, defense, and special teams.
Quarterback: Offense will be key to this team making a drive for another Super Bowl hunt. At the quarterback position, either Redman or Boller must step-up during the season. Boller, a three-year starter in college, maintained a 101.9 quarterback rating over four years, while posting 48 interceptions against 36 touchdowns. If Redman’s back holds up throughout the season, Boller will have a difficult time unseating the four-year veteran.
Running Back: The incumbent Jamal Lewis will be seeking another 1000-plus season on the ground, with Alan Ricard serving as his blocking back. “Versatile and crafty” describes third down specialist Chester Taylor. Taylor will spell Lewis at the halfback position until rookie Musa Smith is fully recovered from injury. Rookie Ovie Mughelli will split time with veteran fullback Harold Morrow as the backup.
Wide Receiver: This position has been the Achilles heel of the team. Travis Taylor is expected to make that much-improved status a reality this season, especially with veterans Frank Sanders (currently injured at press time), Marcus Robinson, and second-year players Ron Johnson and Randy Hymes, all vying for receptions. Lurking in the background is former Morgan State (Baltimore) receiver Marc Lester, who played well in NFL Europe and the pre-season.
Offensive Line: Perennial All-Pro Jonathan Ogden and Edwin Mulitalo will anchor the offensive line on the left side, with Orlando Brown rejoining the team after a four-year absence at tackle. Center Mike Flynn is injured, and has been replaced by third-year center Casey Rabach. Bennie Anderson is expected to maintain the guard position on the right side on the line.
Defense: Defense is what won the Super Bowl for the Baltimore Ravens in 2000. Defense and offense is what will win this season. The Ravens are enduring a tough 16-games schedule that will see several non-conference projected playoff teams, including Oakland, San Francisco, Miami, St. Louis, Kansas City, Denver, and Seattle.
Defense alone this season is not enough to overcome the running style of Kansas City’s Priest Holmes or the dominating defense in Miami. Mike Nolan and the coaching staff experimented with the 3-4 defense last season that saw the defense drop to a dismal 22nd in the league. This season the experiment continues, though the young players have gained a year’s experience, and the addition of first-round pick linebacker/lineman Terrell Suggs and a healthy Ray Lewis should prove favorable to the Ravens’ defensive standings at the end of the season.
Defensive Line: Nose tackle Kelly Gregg impressed all NFL watchers during the pre-season play; he was overlooked nationally last season, but not by local fans. Gregg was voted the unsung hero of the ball club last season. Considered as too short (6’0”) and too small (310 lbs.) for the defensive line, Gregg posted 84 tackles (53 solo), and two sacks.
In his first year as the left defensive end, former Notre Dame star Anthony Weaver contributed with a solid rookie performance. The other side of the line saw a multitude of linemen who contributed to the team defense, finishing 13th against the rush and 26th against the pass overall in the league.
Linebacker: The shinning star of the team has always been the linebacker core. Ray Lewis’s injury last season brought us the emergence of Edgerton Hartwell, who led the team with 191 tackles (though Peter Boulware was chosen to the Pro-Bowl). The addition of Suggs, who came off the bench behind Cornell Brown, will cause offensive coordinators to map out their game plan based on the strength of the linebackers.
Defensive backs: This may be the best defensive backfield since the team last won the Super Bowl. The addition of veteran Cory Fuller and the coming-out party for strong safety Ed Reed will complement the talented cornerback Chris McAllister and the improvement of Gary Baxter. Coming off the bench in the nickel will be Will Demps.
Special teams: What makes the special teams so special is future Hall-of-Famer Matt Stover. Entering his 14th season, Stover is almost perfect in extra points conversion, going 366 for 369 in his great career. He has only missed one extra point in Ravens history.
The Baltimore Ravens’ talent has improved overall, and this reporter predicts they will return to championship status this year. Last year’s prediction in this newspaper was 5-11 won/lost record for the team; they finished 7-9 won/lost. This year I predict the team will finish the regular season 12-4 won/lost, and will go on to win the Superbowl.