OWINGS MILLS, Md. Key injuries along the defensive line may force the Baltimore Ravens to scrap their vaunted 4-3 defense and go with a three-man front.
Right end Michael McCrary is out for the season following knee surgery last Monday, and left end Rob Burnett (calf) is listed as questionable for today’s AFC Central game against the struggling Jacksonville Jaguars at Alltel Stadium.
These injuries will severely hinder the Ravens’ pass rush. With 27 sacks, Baltimore is fourth best in the AFC at getting to the quarterback. McCrary is seventh in the AFC with 7.5 sacks and was having a Pro Bowl-caliber season.
If Burnett can’t play, second-year man Adalius Thomas will take over at left end. Things are a bit more complicated at right end. On passing downs, linebacker Peter Boulware most likely will line up at right end. Coach Brian Billick said he may platoon defensive tackles Kelly Gregg and veteran Larry Webster (Maryland) on obvious running downs in a 3-4 alignment.
“There are a lot of things we can do; we got to be a little creative,” Billick said of his defensive line. “I know a lot of people are floating a 3-4 idea out there, which is a legitimate perspective. I don’t want to lay out exactly what our plans are right now for Jacksonville, but … given our personnel, there’s a lot of options that way [3-4]. So that’s an intriguing possibility.”
All week the Ravens (6-4) prepared their game plan for Jaguars quarterback Mark Brunell. Good call. Brunell, who sat out of last week’s 20-7 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers with a strained quadriceps, has practiced all week and likely will start.
Even though the Jaguars (3-6) are last in the division, Brunell is having an excellent season. The nine-year pro out of Washington, is the AFC’s third-rated passer. The southpaw has completed 139 of 226 passes for 1,606 yards and 10 touchdowns.
The mobile Brunell has thrown just four interceptions on the season. Brunell (7.11 yards) is one of four AFC quarterbacks Oakland’s Rich Gannon (7.13), Miami’s Jay Fiedler (7.42) and Indianapolis’ Peyton Manning (8.12) are the others to average more than seven yards per completion.
Brunell lit up the Ravens Oct. 28 at PSINet Stadium in Baltimore’s come-from-behind 18-17 victory. In that game, Brunell completed 25 of 37 passes for 306 yards and two touchdowns. Wide receivers Keenan McCardell and Jimmy Smith each had more than 100 yards in receptions. McCardell caught 10 for 118 yards, and Smith grabbed seven for 119 yards, including a 35-yard touchdown when he burned cornerback Duane Starks on a quick out.
The 6-foot-1, 205-pound Smith is arguably the most complete receiver in the NFL. The ninth-year pro out of Jackson State is tied for second in the AFC in receptions with New England’s Troy Brown. Smith has 63 for 790 yards and four touchdowns.
“Jimmy Smith is one of the very few receivers who runs all his routes at the same speed,” Ravens cornerback Chris McAlister said. “You really never know exactly what you are getting until he breaks out of his route.”
With the Ravens in the AFC playoff hunt, Billick hinted he may bring in veteran backup Randall Cunningham if starting quarterback Elvis Grbac struggles early.
Cunningham, who started for the injured Grbac the last time these teams met, engineered two fourth-quarter scoring drives and delivered the Ravens’ dramatic win.
Last Sunday, in an embarrassing 27-17 loss to the Cleveland Browns, Grbac threw four interceptions one was returned for a touchdown and lost a fumble.
“That’s why you have a backup quarterback, that’s why you have backup corners, that’s why you have backup offensive linemen,” Billick said. “If any player gets into a situation where he’s having difficulty executing his job and it’s hurting the team, then I have to make a change anywhere across the board. The quarterback position is no different than any other.”