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WESTMINSTER — Steve McNair delivered accurate spirals, including a well-timed strike to tight end Todd Heap for a first down on the opening play of training camp.
Prescott Burgess led with his shoulders and forearms as the rookie linebacker bashed new franchise running back Willis McGahee into the ground in a rude greeting to the Baltimore Ravens.
And veteran middle linebacker Ray Lewis plotted an ambitious road map as the Ravens held their first practice of the season Monday morning at McDaniel College. The defending AFC North champions hope to chart a course to Arizona, the site of Super Bowl XLII.
"It’s no secret," Lewis said after practice at Bair Stadium. "We’re not looking past any team, but the bottom line is Arizona for us. We’re not caring about anything else right now.
"Playoffs are cute, it’s great to make it there, but we don’t want to be sitting at home. I’ve been on both ends of the spectrum, and it doesn’t feel good. Our thing is right now. Arizona is definitely our destination."
Judging from first impressions, the Ravens appear to be on track so far. There weren’t many mistakes other than a few obvious cases of nerves as right guard Chris Chester jumped offsides and several receivers dropped passes.
"The whole team looked good, sharp, crisp," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "They understood the tempo. It was an excellent start to camp."
There were a few clues for Billick that an attentive, aggressive team was ready for camp to commence during a Sunday team meeting after arriving in Westminster.
"I knew it last night," Billick said. "I threw a lot on them last night, and they were very focused, into it and it was a good sign to see."
Making a bid to conquer the playoff landscape to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl will test the Ravens on several levels. Baltimore has to contend with a first-place schedule after a franchise-record 13-3 campaign. The NFL’s top-ranked defense has to insert Jarret Johnson as All-Pro linebacker Adalius Thomas’ replacement.
Several competitions, including right guard, return specialist, fullback and center, must be settled. McGahee needs to be indoctrinated into an offense that hopes to become an equal partner in the Ravens’ pecking order.
And McNair has to emerge as a big-play quarterback in his second season in Baltimore.
"I feel comfortable, I’m not rushing like I was last year trying to get in and fit in with this offense," said McNair, who passed for 3,050 yards and 16 touchdowns last season. "I can go out there and relax and not think a lot. Last year, I was thinking a lot about whether I was doing the right things. Today, I know it and I know what I’m doing.
"We want to be one of the top offenses in the NFL. That’s what we’re shooting for."
For years, the Ravens have been a one-dimensional outfit that shut down opposing offenses with a stingy defense while trying to score just enough points to win. That philosophy is one they’re trying to change after improving to 17th in the NFL in total offense last season.
"Last year, I think we knew how great we would be on defense, but we had a lot of pieces we had to put together on offense with bringing Steve in late and him getting adjusted to the system," Lewis said. "Now, everybody’s comfortable. Steve has everything he needs.
"He can gel with his receivers, with his offense and with Willis. I think it brings a complete balance to our football team."
That quest for balance is dependent on McGahee, whom Baltimore acquired in a trade from the Buffalo Bills and signed to a $40 million contract. Running toward the sidelines, McGahee fumbled when an eager Burgess tackled him roughly during a drill that wasnâ€™t full-contact.
A voice from the stands bellowed down to the former University of Miami star:
"Hey, Willis, welcome to Ravenstown. This isn’t South Beach."
The intensity was cranked up right away, perhaps a little too high as McGahee is the expensive centerpiece of the Ravens’ new-look offense.
"Sometimes, you’ve got to tell the young guys to be careful with that," Lewis said. "Coach had just told the young guys earlier to be careful about trying to go full speed and make a name for themselves when we’re not going live.
"Willis was just trying to run through the hole, and he kind of laid him out. Willis said he didn’t like it, so hopefully it doesn’t turn into anything else. It’s just football."
Unlike a year ago following a 6-10 campaign, Baltimore launches this season with a lot of confidence. Lewis made a bold pronouncement about the Ravens’ prospects for a second Vince Lombardi trophy.
"I’ve been around football a long time, and to come in with a complete football team, knowing who’s starting at quarterback and who everybody is, it’s really overwhelming if you know the things I’ve been through in my career," said Lewis, a two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year. "Even when we won the Super Bowl, we didn’t have that certainty going into the season that we’d be that type of team. But right now we have that. I think that’s why everybody’s so energetic about being back."
NOTE: Wide receiver Mark Clayton had an unusual reason for being held out of the afternoon workout. He injured his finger while biting his nails, requiring a pain-killing shot and his fingers being taped together.
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital