Ravens' coordinators ready for the test

WESTMINSTER -- For the Baltimore Ravens' pair of first-year coordinators, it's time for a systems check. In the first real test of the revamped schemes and new personnel instituted under the direction of offensive coordinator Jim Fassel and defensive coordinator Rex Ryan, Saturday night's preseason opener against the Atlanta Falcons will mark several debuts.

For Ryan, his aggressive 46 defense will be unveiled against Falcons quarterback Michael Vick, one of the most athletic quarterbacks in the league. Not to mention a supporting Falcons cast that features a trio of first-round picks at receiver in Peerless Price, Michael Jenkins and Roddy White, two former first-round running backs in Warrick Dunn and T.J. Duckett along with Pro Bowl tight end Alge Crumpler.

The Ravens, who have shifted to a 4-3 alignment under Ryan from the 3-4, will be shorthanded defensively at the Georgia Dome as Pro Bowl safety Ed Reed is a game-time decision with a leg injury. Plus, linebacker Adalius Thomas is out with a knee injury and his spot will be filled by Jarret Johnson and Terrell Suggs.

"This is a great challenge for us with all the skill the Falcons have on offense," said Ryan, whose defense has three new starters in cornerback Samari Rolle, linebacker Tommy Polley and nose guard Maake Kemoeatu. "We're going to play hard and get after them and see what happens. Obviously, a preseason game is all about assignments, flying around with passion and eliminating mental mistakes.

"We're a little out of position right now with the injuries, but there are no excuses. We're going to line up and compete like we always do."

The Ravens will get an extended look at Fassel's emphasis on quarterback Kyle Boller's mechanics and his timing with two-time Pro Bowl receiver Derrick Mason. Fassel is employing increased motion and timing patterns while emphasizing yardage after the catch.

"I want to see us do the things we've been preaching: play hard and be smart," Fassel said. "The first thing about being good on offense is to not make stupid mistakes. We've been pretty sharp with turnovers, but I want to see them execute consistently."

Boller is being counted on to make major progress in his third year as a starter under Fassel, a noted quarterback guru with a rich track record that includes John Elway, Phil Simms and Boomer Esiason.

Yet, Boller has been up and down in practice. He rebounded from a four-interception outing on the second day of training camp with a solid performance in a scrimmage against the Washington Redskins last weekend.

"I want to see Kyle handle the pressure in a game and not be stupid with the ball," Fassel said. "I want him to run our offense and play the way he's been coached. It would be nice to score on the opening drive. I expect Kyle to be poised and deliver the football."

The starters are likely to play a few series, but that group won't include running back Jamal Lewis, tight end Todd Heap and possibly fullback Alan Ricard. Lewis has only been practicing for a few days since reporting to training camp a week late after being released from an Atlanta halfway house, and Ricard strained a calf muscle on Friday.

That means that Chester Taylor will start at running back with Ovie Mughelli playing fullback and Darnell Dinkins starting for Heap.

The reshaped offense will also have a brief and possibly intense encounter with Falcons middle linebacker Ed Hartwell, who left the Ravens in free agency this offseason.

"Sometimes it's business," Hartwell told Atlanta reporters. "Sometimes it's personal."
Meanwhile, rookie wide receiver Mark Clayton, the Ravens' first-round draft pick, will play in his first NFL game after a five-day holdout. Clayton will play 10 to 12 snaps on offense and be used as a punt returner after an impressive week of practice that has the Ravens excited about his potential.

"It's my first NFL experience, my first NFL atmosphere," said Clayton, who downplayed any talk of nerves since he practices daily against future Hall of Fame cornerback Deion Sanders. "Without a doubt, I'm excited. I can't wait to get out there and compete."

It's a similar feeling for Fassel, even though he's a former New York Giants head coach who has been in football for four decades.

After being hired last season as a consultant by Ravens coach Brian Billick, it's now Fassel's offense and he has total freedom to run it as he sees fit.

"I like these players," said Fassel, who replaced Matt Cavanaugh. "They want to work hard. They want to be good and that's refreshing.

"They wanted a different voice, a different approach, someone telling them what to do. Brian has been great to me. He still walks in to the meetings and puts his two cents in, but we definitely see eye to eye on where this offense needs to go."

NOTES: Although two of his top players – Jamal Lewis and Ray Lewis – have been involved in high profile criminal trials in Atlanta, Billick said he has no trepidation about the city.

"We as a team have never had an issue down in Atlanta," Billick said. "We have a lot of guys who live in Atlanta. No, it's not a concern of mine." …

Heap said he doesn't know if he'll return Monday, which was projected for his first practice. Heap underwent ankle and shoulder surgery after the season and is on the physically unable to perform list along with running back Musa Smith.

"I hate watching, but I can't rush back," Heap said. "I've got to make sure I'm completely healed up. The timing has to be right. We'll see how it feels on Monday."

In addition to being a long time contributor to RavensInsider, Aaron Wilson writes for the Carroll County Times in Westminster Maryland.

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