- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 7, 2005

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The Baltimore Ravens have one of the NFL’s most punishing defenses, led by future Pro Football Hall of Famer Ray Lewis and reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year Ed Reed. They have an overpowering running game, with 245-pound Jamal Lewis rolling through holes created by eight-time Pro Bowl tackle Jonathan Ogden.

But they also have a considerable problem at the game’s most important position. Third-year quarterback Kyle Boller has been largely ineffective, and the lack of a potent passing game is holding back a team that missed the playoffs in two of the past three seasons.

“When Boller started as a rookie, we were saying, ‘Hey, we really don’t need you — this team can carry you,’ ” said general manager Ozzie Newsome, who selected the quarterback with the 19th overall pick in 2003. “We just asked him not to screw up. Now we are giving him a chance to play.”

The Ravens, who finished 9-7 last season, feel good about their chances of winning the AFC North and going deep in the playoffs. That optimism, however, is tempered by the unfulfilled promise of last year, when they lost four of five games late in the season and missed the playoffs.

“This could very well be the best football team I’ve had since I’ve been here,” coach Brian Billick said, “which, in essence, says we think we are a capable playoff-, Super Bowl-caliber team.”

Billick, in his seventh season, led the Ravens to the 2000 Super Bowl title but has won only a single playoff game since. He revamped the coaching staff in the offseason. Former New York Giants coach Jim Fassel is the new offensive coordinator, replacing ineffective Matt Cavanaugh. Rex Ryan, the son of former Eagles and Cardinals coach Buddy Ryan, takes over the vaunted defensive unit from Mike Nolan, now head coach of the San Francisco 49ers.

The Ravens improved an already strong secondary by signing free agent cornerback Samari Rolle from Tennessee. They also re-signed linebacker Peter Boulware, who provides depth as a third-down specialist. The offensive line added Keydrick Vincent, who started for Pittsburgh last season.

The Ravens paid particular attention to the passing game, signing Derrick Mason, who led all NFL receivers with 96 receptions for the Tennessee Titans last season. They also used their first-round draft pick and 22nd overall on Oklahoma wideout Mark Clayton. The pair will team with Clarence Moore, a 6-foot-6 target who many feel is ready for a breakout season in his second year.

“We need to make bigger plays in the passing game,” said Fassel, who wants a strong passing game to take pressure from Jamal Lewis. “That’s the biggest thing.”

Baltimore also has one of the NFL’s best pass-catching tight ends in Todd Heap, the team’s leading receiver in 2002 and ‘03 but who missed 10 games last season with an ankle injury.

Still, the biggest question entering the season is Boller. The Cal product had an erratic preseason, complete with bad reads and a propensity for turnovers. The 6-3, 220-pounder has shown his toughness — he’s taken a pounding because of missed blocks — but few signs of progress.

Boller had a quarterback rating of 70.9 last season, completing 55.6 percent of his passes with 13 touchdowns and 11 interceptions and absorbing 35 sacks. The mobile quarterback plans to use last season as a painful learning experience.

“I put a lot of pressure on myself,” Boller said. “I see things a lot different [this preseason]. I can kind of go out there and play the game now, versus over-thinking everything. The first couple years, it is tough to get rhythm, and you are thinking about a lot of different things. Now I have the offense down pat. I understand defenses. I can just go out and make my reads.”

Fassel plans to simplify the offense to ensure that Boller doesn’t get overloaded with information and may use shorter routes — particularly with Heap — to build the 24-year-old quarterback’s confidence. Boller understands his mistakes but has struggled to correct them in games.

“They brought one too many guys that we can’t block,” Boller said, breaking down a play on which he took a head-to-head shot against the Saints in the preseason. “So technically, that guy is mine. We have a guy built into the flat. If I can get it out a little bit quicker and get him that ball, maybe I won’t take the hit. Little things like that.”

Boller has won over his team with his ability to take shots and with the team-first mentality he demonstrated in the preseason by running 30 yards downfield to throw a block.

“Kyle is showing his leadership and his willingness to say he has to do better, too,” Billick said. “That is a quarterback trying to take on his share of the responsibility. That is why you love the kid.”

If Boller’s unit can gain a few more first downs and keep the defense off the field, Ray Lewis & Co. would be that much fresher and could be even more aggressive. At 30, the middle linebacker doesn’t appear to have lost a step — and he certainly hasn’t lost his swagger.

“I wouldn’t say there’s a better player in the league than me,” said Lewis, who had a team-high 200 tackles (122 solo) last season. “So regardless if I’m 30 or 18, I can still do what I do.”

Defensive end Terrell Suggs made the Pro Bowl after recording 11 sacks (third in the league). And the rich secondary got even wealthier with Rolle and four-time Pro Bowl cornerback Dale Carter joining safety Reed (league-high nine interceptions) and corner Deion Sanders as a nickel back.

“I doubt that you will ever see that again,” said Mason, referring to the four star corners on one team, “unless you are playing a video game where you can put them all together.”

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