Ravens' McGahee: 'I'm geeked up'

WESTMINSTER -- With visions of quick strikes, touchdown jaunts and a revamped running game dominating their thoughts, the Baltimore Ravens' offense launches the preseason tonight against the Philadelphia Eagles. Eight months ago in this venue, the AFC North champions' Super Bowl aspirations were stamped out by the Indianapolis Colts largely because of a stagnant offense.

Now, the Ravens return to M&T Bank Stadium optimistic about unveiling a more explosive attack spearheaded by a new centerpiece in franchise running back Willis McGahee.

Have the Ravens truly added some new flavors, or will their version of the West Coast offense remain strictly vanilla?

"We've made adjustments with our offense and different plays that we've put in, and we're trying to gear it more toward our playmakers and what we're good at," Pro Bowl tight end Todd Heap said. "In that respect, I'm excited. I've been watching how our camps have gone against our defense for seven years, and this looks like it's been the best for us offensively.

"We've come together the quickest. We've played the best against our defense, which is saying something, and it looks like everybody is on the same page."

The biggest difference for the Ravens is incorporating a one-back offense to suit the slashing cutbacks McGahee favors, which also allows them to put three receivers on the field. The major emphasis of the preseason has been trying to improve a running game that dipped to 25th in the league last season, effectively ending the tenure of former NFL Offensive Player of the Year Jamal Lewis.

Don't blink, though, because McGahee, a former Pro Bowl runner whom Baltimore acquired in a trade with the Buffalo Bills and signed to a $40 million contract this offseason, isn't likely to play more than a series or two under the mandated workload for the starters.

This is more of an appetizer, not the main course. "We'll try to feature him early," offensive coordinator Rick Neuheisel said. "I don't know that Monday night is the report card. I like where he is. I don't know that the amount of reps he'll get on Monday will be enough to say this, that or the other thing, but we're excited that he's here and see great promise."

McGahee rushed for only nine yards on four carries a week ago in a scrimmage against the Washington Redskins, whetting his appetite for an increased workload and being embraced in in a new town after a career-low 990 yards last season while falling out of favor in Buffalo.

"I can't wait," McGahee said. "I want to get things rolling fast. I'm excited about everything that's happening. I'm geeked up."

McGahee might be limited to a handful of carries, which isn't enough to truly judge. That said, the Ravens appear satisfied with their new runner so far even though they have limited his exposure to live contact drills.

"Anxious to see him in game conditions, he seems to have grasped all that we're doing over the last couple of weeks," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "Now, we have to see him in a game. I think he has a firm understanding of what it is we need from him."

Added wide receiver Mark Clayton: "Everybody knows what Willis is capable of. It's preseason and we know when the time is right, he's going to come out and shine."

The Ravens' passing game looked sharp against the Redskins during two scoring drives with quarterbacks Steve McNair and Kyle Boller combining for 8 of 11 accuracy and 121 yards.

A continuation of that crispness, which was highlighted by moving the football through the air to Demetrius Williams, Heap and Daniel Wilcox, is what the Ravens are hoping for.

"Ideally, we drive down the field and score the first time and watch the young guys go to work," Heap said. "I'd really like to see us kind of get in a rhythm similar to what we did in the scrimmage.

"Every year, this is the first step. You don't get a ton of opportunities out there the first game, but you get some film. It's always fun to get in the stadium in front of the fans and get a taste for the season."

The Ravens return perhaps their best overall receiving corps since the Ted Marchibroda years when Michael Jackson and Derrick Alexander lined up wide and caught bullets from Vinny Testaverde. With McNair entering his second season as the starter, the Ravens are hoping to climb past being the 17th-ranked total offense last season.

"I think we'll be more explosive because we've had a year with that core unit," Clayton said. "I feel like we have the weapons and the people to make big plays this year."

Because preseason games are heavily scouted by NFL personnel, the Ravens aren't expected to reveal too many nuances of their offense. That could mean a lot of base offense looks with zone running schemes and intermediate throws.

"You just remember which games count and which games don't," Neuheisel said. "It's like a new bike. You want to ride it and make sure all the neighbors see it, but the race isn't until early September."

Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.

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