5 THINGS TO WATCH
1. Will the arrival of quarterback Steve McNair immediately change the Ravens' fortunes? The Ravens are counting on the former NFL Co-Most Valuable Player to inject a dormant passing game with a calm presence in the huddle along with the arm strength and wherewithal to locate receivers downfield and avoid turnovers. Against the NFL's top-ranked defense from last season, the Ravens should quickly learn whether their revamped offense and $32 million investment in McNair will pay dividends. With Ravens coach Brian Billick widely perceived to be on the hot seat after being given a change-or-go mandate by owner Steve Bisciotti last winter, it's clear that Billick needs to engineer a major turnaround from last year's 6-10 downward spiral to create job security. He'll need a major boost from McNair to accomplish that goal.
2. Can the Ravens ever win again on the road? It's been 11 consecutive games (the longest road losing streak in the NFL) since Baltimore was triumphant away from M&T Bank Stadium. The skid dates back to Nov. 14, 2004 when the Ravens defeated the New York Jets in overtime. The Buccaneers' home-field advantage is a significant one, particularly since they are accustomed to the Florida heat and Baltimore traditionally travels so poorly. Tampa Bay was 6-2 at theatrically pirate-themed Raymond James Stadium last season.
3. Can middle linebacker Ray Lewis slow down Cadillac Williams? Lewis overran plays throughout the preseason and his presence was virtually nonexistent compared to his prolific past. He needs to corral the explosive second-year running back. The Buccaneers were 6-0 last year when Williams ran for 100 yards or more. Their favorite running play is the "Power Bob," which usually allows him to get downhill and cut off of the tackle's block.
4. Can safety Ed Reed exploit Chris Simms' relative inexperience? Reed is looking to regain his game-changing NFL Defensive Player of the Year form against Simms, a promising quarterback prospect who began to tap into his vast potential last season. The Ravens have invested $40 million in Reed to not only be the best safety in the league, but also one of the NFL's true impact players.
5. Is running back Jamal Lewis' hip injury going to be a negative factor?
Lewis nursed his strained left hip flexor throughout the preseason and was
granted two weeks off to recuperate. He practiced all week and said he's ready
for a full allotment of carries. The Ravens have been somewhat vague about his
prospective workload, adding a slight air of mystery to his status.
Three questions with middle linebacker Ray Lewis
1. On playing nearby Lakeland, his Florida hometown: "My family is there and I definitely have a lot of family coming over. Like I expressed to my family, this is a straight business trip. It's the first game of the year and I want to really get my mind focused. The beautiful part about it is that I do get to see my three boys and they get to show me their highlight tapes, so it should be a great trip for me."
2. On Buccaneers linebacker Derrick Brooks: "You're talking about a guy who I talk to four times a week. One of the craziest things we talk about is the respect we have for each other, first of all as men of God and second of all as true warriors, true competitors. Derrick Brooks is probably one of the best linebackers I've seen in a long time. He's just one of those players who you truly respect as a man first and as a football player second."
3. On his hamstring surgery last season and if he ever doubted he would
return: "No. One of the reasons why is you deal with every surgery the same way.
You get through the surgery, you deal with whatever rehab you have to deal with
and then just make up your mind and say, ‘OK, now I'm ready.' I don't think
doubt ever seeps in because of my faith and what I believe in God. Whenever my
time is done, it'll be done. I will know it clearly."
Three questions with Buccaneers coach Jon Gruden
1. On Ravens quarterback Steve McNair: "Steve McNair is indisputably a great quarterback. He's a great leader. When you add a player like that, you expect results and knowing Steve McNair, knowing his past, I would consider him a real strength to the football team in Baltimore."
2. On what he's seen from running back Cadillac Williams: "More of what we saw of him at Auburn. He is in tremendous physical shape. He's a great competitor and he's a gifted runner. We didn't give him the ball very much in the preseason, honestly, but he has had a great camp. He works harder than any of our players. He loves football, and we are going to need him obviously to have a chance to do some things."
3. On whether the Buccaneers have an advantage from training in the Florida
heat: "I think given the global warming that everybody is talking about, it's
pretty hot in Baltimore. I read about some days there where it was extremely
hot. We are not going to look at that as an advantage. Some people might look at
it negatively, having to come down and play in the heat, but it's going to be
hot for both teams and certainly it's going to come into play if you are not in
HOW THE RAVENS CAN WIN
1. Protect quarterback Steve McNair. The Buccaneers feature a fierce pass rush generated primarily with their front four. The offensive line has to minimize the breakdowns it allowed throughout the preseason.
2. Tackle Cadillac Williams. He thrives as an elusive runner capable of going the distance. The Ravens have to bottle him up at or behind the line of scrimmage to avoid a long, momentum-building dash.
3. Establish the run. Whether it's Jamal Lewis or Musa Smith handling the
bulk of the workload, the Ravens are going to have to run the football to keep
the Buccaneers honest. Otherwise, it will probably be a steady diet of short
passes and three-and-outs.
HOW THE BUCCANEERS CAN WIN
1. Stretch the field. The Buccaneers can make the Ravens respect the deep pass and not crowd the line of scrimmage with vertical strikes to fleet receivers Joey Galloway and Michael Clayton. That could create pathways for Cadillac Williams.
2. Cut off passing lanes. If the aggressive Tampa 2 scheme prevents the Ravens from picking up first downs through the air, it could become extremely difficult to run against linebacker Derrick Brooks and brawny defensive tackles Booger McFarland and Chris Hovan
3. Go after rookie safety Dawan Landry. The Buccaneers are probably inclined
toward finding out if the fifth-round draft pick truly belongs on a veteran
defense. Watch for pass-catching tight end Alex Smith to challenge him early.
The Ravens don't have a significant history against the Buccaneers, but are 0-2 all-time and were outscored by a combined total of 47-10. It has been two seasons since Baltimore has made the playoffs, winning just one postseason game since claiming a Super Bowl title following the 2000 season.
OT Jonathan Ogden vs. DE Simeon Rice
During last season's opener, Dwight Freeney clearly got the best of Ogden. Now, he's facing an old nemesis in Rice, one of the top speed rushers in recent league history. Ogden is at a disadvantage due to missing training camp and gaining weight while he dealt with his father's death.
RB Carnell Williams vs. LB Ray Lewis
Williams is one of the most dynamic young runners in the game, and Lewis used to be one of the most intimidating tacklers. Can he regain his old NFL Defensive Player of the Year form and slow down the Cadillac? Or is Lewis past his prime?
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times in Westminster, Maryland.