Ravens have a rookie flair

Apparently, ignorance is a blissful existence for the Baltimore Ravens. Brian Billick remains convinced that his rookies are happily unaware of how difficult the NFL was supposed to be for a franchise impacted by the salary-cap wrecking ball. Because the Ravens (3-3) have managed to achieve a share of first-place status in the wobbly AFC North by winning three of four games, Billick has had a host of pleasant surprises to marvel over.

The Ravens sport 17 rookies and first-year players, including three defensive starters, for the youngest team in league history since the advent of the 53-man roster in 1993.

Many of the players are barely old enough to shave, but they're being counted upon heavily nonetheless as Baltimore prepares for Sunday's encounter with the Pittsburgh Steelers at Ravens Stadium.

"It doesn't seem too big for them," said Billick, whose team began the season with two losses. "They don't know that they ought not to be making those plays, that they don't have the experience. They just play hard with athleticism. The thing I am most pleased with is the way they communicate with one another."

Between starting safeties Ed Reed and Will Demps, punter Dave Zastudil, former Notre Dame defensive lineman Anthony Weaver, kickoff specialist J.R. Jenkins, receiver Ron Johnson, nose guard Maake Kemoeatu and a few other rookies, this year's edition has a youthful flair.

In the final seconds of a 17-10 win over the Jacksonville Jaguars on Sunday, Demps broke on a Mark Brunell pass for an interception to preserve the win. Despite the continued absence of injured All-Pro middle linebacker Ray Lewis, the Ravens intercepted Brunell three times, sacked him twice and deflected 11 of his passes.

Demps, 22, has 31 tackles, a sack, a forced fumble and five pass deflections.

"Being a rookie helps a lot, knowing that they are behind you all the way," said Demps, an undrafted free safety from San Diego State. "I don't think that I add a lot. The coaches just put me in great situations and they coach me well."

While the coaching staff has the primary responsibility of schooling the rookies, a lot of older players have shared the load, too. Especially in the secondary.

"I give a lot of credit to the veterans like Chris McAlister and James Trapp," Billick said. "From within, James Trapp gives us leadership in that regard in terms of the communication that has to go on, even if he isn't in the game."

Billick noted how, if not for the drastic reduction of the Ravens' veteran personnel from the Super Bowl team of two years ago, Demps never gets the opportunity to prove himself.

As the Ravens' first-round pick, Reed has 23 tackles, two interceptions and a sack after being drafted 24th overall after an All-American career at Miami (Fla.).

"This has to be rewarding when a group of young guys are one," said Reed after collecting seven tackles against the Jaguars.

Weaver is starting at defensive end and has 24 tackles, a sack and two pass deflections, including one tip that led to an interception against Jacksonville.

Zastudil, the club's fourth-round pick, averages 40.7 yards per punt with 15 downed inside the 20-yard line.

Return specialists Lamont Brightful and Javin Hunter have a cumulative seven kick returns for 155 yards, including long returns for 63 and 38 yards, respectively.

Rookie safety Chad Williams made a key fourth-down tackle to stop one Jaguars drive. He has 17 tackles for the season.

Johnson caught two passes for 37 yards against the Jaguars. For the season, he has five receptions for 69 yards and a touchdown.

Kemoeatu, a 300-pound run-stuffer and another free-agent find, has worked in tandem with Kelly Gregg for a combined 38 tackles and two sacks.

"He's so enthusiastic, so big, so athletic," Billick said of Kemoeatu. "He's going to get schooled occasionally, but he's going to get better and I think he's going to be a tremendous player."

 Additionally, 34 Ravens were either undrafted or selected in the latter portion of the draft the sixth or seventh round. Discoveries like Scott, a swift player scout T.J. McCreight found at Southern Illinois, have replenished the special teams.

The mass overhaul of the roster this offseason cost the Ravens depth on the special teams along with the loss of several starters.

"I give a great deal of credit to my coaches for this," said Billick, also noting the scouts' contribution. "They have done a phenomenal job of not feeling sorry for themselves for even a moment. They haven't said, ‘How am I going to overcome this?' or ‘Look what I have to deal with.'

"It's real easy to feel sorry for yourself, and it's real easy for me to take the high road because I have a four-year contract. They don't. Our youth is a factor."

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