Billick pleased with where Ravens are

OWINGS MILLS - Halfway through the football schedule, Baltimore Ravens coach Brian Billick barked out a rather bold audible. He regards the Ravens' talent and athleticism to be superior to previous editions in virtually every category.

Yes, Billick's evaluation included the relentless defense that set records during the Ravens' Super Bowl campaign three years ago. With a two-game lead in the AFC North, the Ravens (5-3) appear confident in their ability to claim the division title and advance to the playoffs.

Baltimore features the top-ranked running game in the league, the sixth overall defense while ranking last in the NFL in passing behind rookie quarterback Kyle Boller.

This mark duplicates the midseason success of the Super Bowl team and the Ravens' last playoff team in 2001.

"I feel very good about this 5-3 football team, and I think this is the best 5-3 team that I've had," Billick said. "The balance that we have, offense, defense and special teams, we've produced more yards, we've produced more points and we, by far, have the best coverage team. "Obviously, it's ambitious to compare it to the 2000 team, but this is a more athletic team that has a bigger upside at this point than that team did. Relatively speaking, that bodes well for us."

It's worth noting that the Super Bowl team set a regular-season mark for a 16-game season by allowing only 165 points. This team has already surrendered 149 points.

If Billick's assessment is correct, then Baltimore looks set to make a postseason run. The formula for winning is still built around Jamal Lewis' running and linebacker Ray Lewis' tackling.

Jamal Lewis leads the NFL with 1,045 rushing yards and Ray Lewis leads Baltimore with 114 tackles following a shoulder injury that ended his season last year and required surgical repair.

"At the end of the day, our ability to run and stop the run has to be our bread and butter," Baltimore general manager Ozzie Newsome said. "That's how we win football games."

In between his enthusiastic remarks, Billick did offer the perspective of there being a lot more games left to play. That includes demanding road games starting this week against the St. Louis Rams followed by the Miami Dolphins.

The potential linchpins are the continued development of Boller, the lowest-rated passer in the AFC with a 62.3quarterback rating, along with red-zone struggles and the dark shadow of instant replay.

"Probably the most significant thing is we've got a two-game lead in the division," Newsome said. "We're pleased that Ray Lewis is back, that Jamal for the first time is putting two consecutive seasons together and we're seeing what he's capable of doing.

"Could we be better? Yeah, but we are pleased. Could we be worse? Yeah, but I'm not going to sit here and feel a lot of pity for myself. I'm glad we are where we are."

Boller has completed 105 of his 202 passes for 1,138 yards, six touchdowns and eight interceptions. He ranks ahead of only Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb statistically.

A tendency to force passes into coverage along with bouts with accuracy and mechanics have accompanied Boller's progress while forging a connection with tight end Todd Heap and receiver Travis Taylor.

"With Kyle Boller, it's not fair to say, 'You have a rookie quarterback,'" Billick said. "After eight games, you're not a rookie anymore. You are, but he has to be judged on a different level, and he understands that, to go where we want to go."

Boller is one of two rookies starting at quarterback this season along with Jacksonville's Byron Leftwich. If the Ravens win the AFC North with Boller, it would represent the first division winner with a rookie starting at quarterback for the entire season since the NFL and AFL merger in 1970.

"I think it's a credit to everybody being on the same page from the outset with Kyle and what we had to do with him as our quarterback," Newsome said. "I imagine Kyle will continue to get better."

Both Billick and Newsome expressed confidence in offensive tackle Orlando Brown's progress after a three-year hiatus from football with an eye injury caused by an errantly-tossed penalty flag. Although injured, veteran cornerback Corey Fuller was singled out by Billick for his leadership and all-around play.

Bilick also noted rookie outside linebacker Terrell Suggs' pass rush capabilities. The 10th overall pick of the draft gets most of his snaps in nickel packages as a rush end, but six of his dozen tackles are sacks.

"I think you can see a growing presence of Terrell," Billick said. "He is a factor coming off that edge."

Newsome praised the work of backup running back Chester Taylor, expressing hope that rookie Musa Smith will be utilized in the second half to give Lewis some more relief.

Two newcomers haven't fared as well, though. Veteran receiver additions Frank Sanders and Marcus Robinson have combined for just 14 receptions for 136 yards and no touchdowns. "I'm definitely not against them doing better," Newsome said. "I think they want to do better themselves. With the opportunities presented to them, maybe they will do better down the stretch. I'm definitely pulling for them."

The Ravens have a 23-10 mark in November and December under Billick dating back to his first season in 1999.

Their immediate goal is to stay ahead of the division. The Bengals and Cleveland Browns, who are two games back, and the skidding Pittsburgh Steelers after five consecutive losses, are chasing Baltimore.

"I think we're pretty satisfied," said strong safety Ed Reed, who has intercepted four passes and blocked two punts. "At the midpoint, we're right where we want to be."

Aaron Wilson writes for the Carroll County Times.

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