Ravens’ Offense Looking for Respect (A. Wilson)

Street Talk Ravens’ Offense Looking for Respect (A. Wilson)

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WESTMINSTER, Md. — Respect and honesty aren’t normally two superlatives the Baltimore Ravens have associated with opposing defenses.
Traditionally, the Ravens have been dealt with in one overriding and sometimes painful fashion.  For years, defensive coordinators have crowded the line of scrimmage with extra defenders to try to bottle up the Ravens’ hard-nosed running game. The quarterback has been a mere afterthought.
“It’s never really been honest,” running back Jamal Lewis said. “They would just put eight men in the box to try to stop me and take their chances in the secondary. It got frustrating.”
And that approach paid major dividends last season as Baltimore nose-dived to a 6-10 campaign and finished 24th in total offense (293.3 yards per game) and 25th in scoring offense (16.6 points per game). Lewis slumped to a career-low 906-yard season with three touchdowns and a 3.4 average per carry.
However, it appears to be a new day with the arrival of franchise quarterback Steve McNair.
During the Ravens’ preseason debut Friday night against the New York Giants, McNair’s lone series immediately signaled a watershed shift in the balance of the offense.  McNair threw five passes, completing four. He handed off six times to Lewis, who rumbled for 34 yards. And McNair capped the drive with a 6-yard touchdown run.
“We’re trying to have a balanced attack, a balanced approach with Steve,” Lewis said. “His presence makes things different. It’s like the defense is saying, ‘We don’t know how you guys are going to play, but we have to respect it, especially with him back there.’"
It was a bizarre occurrence for a football team accustomed to offensive struggles, having finished 31st in total offense in 2004, 21st in 2003 and 26th in 2002.
The drive lasted 12 plays, 82 yards and spanned 7 minutes and 22 seconds. It wasn’t defined by errant, mistimed throws, penalties or turnovers.  It was a smooth, unhurried, calm operation.
“The first drive was perfect, we got in and we got out,” said tight end Todd Heap, who caught two passes for 34 yards. “You could see Steve McNair going through his reads. He went through the progression, hit the open guys.
“That’s the main thing for us this year. If we take what they give us, we’ll be able to march down the field.”
McNair’s presence makes a definite difference.
Although the Giants were without linebacker LaVar Arrington and defensive end Michael Strahan, it wasn’t a case of an all-out blitz package or a nickel or dime coverage scheme. They were in a basic 4-3 alignment for nearly every snap.
“I was kind of anxious to see how they were going to line up against us, kind of waiting to see what kind of reaction we would get out of defenses with Steve McNair back there," Lewis said. "They backed out, looked kind of honest, so we were able to play 50-50.”
With McNair under center, things could be much different for Lewis and the entire offense.
A year ago, it was fairly obvious what was going to happen most of the time. The Ravens often fell into a habit of running on first or second down with deposed former starter Kyle Boller either throwing one of his 12 interceptions or an incompletion followed by a Dave Zastudil punt.  Now, Lewis might have increased freedom to run. Or he can stay in the backfield and throw blocks for McNair while he picks out Derrick Mason, Mark Clayton or Heap downfield.
“Jamal looked great, it’s going to help the passing game and I think our passing game is going to help our running game,” McNair said. “When you have things like that working, you do so much offensively, especially with Jamal in the backfield. We were clicking on all cylinders.
“Who do you stop? Do you stop the passing game or do you stop the running game? A team can’t prepare for both of them. I’m not saying we’re there yet. We’ve still got a long way to go, but that’s the kind of drive we can look forward to.”
Plus, the game illustrated the contrast between McNair and Boller, who tripped over center Jason Brown once and over his own feet another time. 
His throws were regularly off-target and off-rhythm against the Giants as he completed 12 of 18 passes for 100 yards and squandered two red-zone opportunities. Meanwhile, McNair completed 80 percent of his throws for a 104.2 passer rating.
The main difference, through, came through in the huddle and at the line of scrimmage where McNair’s intangibles and aggressive, confident approach were evident.
“Just his presence is different, he’s an experienced guy,” Lewis said. “You want to play for him. You want to play behind him. I love it. Just get used to it, I’m sure there are good things coming.”
Aaron Wilson covers the Ravens for the Carroll County Times in Westminster, Maryland.

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Aaron Wilson

About Aaron Wilson

Aaron Wilson covers the NFL for National Football Post as well as the Baltimore Ravens for The Carroll County Times and Ravens24x7.com. He has previously covered the Jacksonville Jaguars and Tennessee Titans and has covered the NFL since 1997.  He has won several regional writing awards, including, most recently, Best Sports News Story for the state of Maryland in voting conducted by the Associated Press managing editors.  More from Aaron Wilson


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