A couple of years ago, it would be hard to fathom that former Vikings offensive coordinator and current Ravens head coach Brian Billick could be on the hot seat for his job. But, as the Ravens and Vikings prepare for Friday night's preseason matchup at the Metrodome, Billick is under the gun to have a successful season or face the possibility of being replaced.
The Ravens have dropped a long way since winning the Super Bowl over the Giants following the 2000 regular season, and Billick's cache as one of the league's top coaches has been tarnished somewhat. But, heading into the 2006 season, he has something he's never had in his head coaching career – a legitimate starting quarterback in Steve McNair.
For years, Billick has gotten by on retreads and underachievers and he has been hamstrung by the Ravens' role in the draft debacle that saw the Vikings drop two spots on draft day 2003. The Vikings, who coveted Kevin Williams but believed he wasn't on anyone's radar at the seventh overall pick, had a deal struck with the Ravens for Baltimore to move ahead of Minnesota, take quarterback Byron Leftwich and throw the Vikings a mid-round pick as compensation. Instead, the Ravens didn't get their end of the trade into the league in time, the Vikings ended up with egg on their face and Baltimore shuffled quickly to trade a future first-round pick for Kyle Boller. As a quarterback, Boller has never panned out, but finally did show a little promise late last season, especially in a win over the Vikings that ended their Cinderella run. But, Boller's job this season will be to learn from McNair and be ready in the event he gets injured, because, despite being a warrior, it's almost a given that McNair will be hurt at some time during the season.
Injuries also carry into the running backs corps. The Vikings won't see Jamal Lewis Friday – he's been shut down for the remainder of the preseason as a precaution for a hip flexor injury. With Lewis sidelined, it had opened up a strong competition at running back where Mike Anderson, a free agent signee from Denver who ran for more than 1,000 yards last year that was brought in to replace Chester Taylor, is battling it out with Musa Smith. Smith has been the most electrifying offensive player this preseason, breaking off a 43-yard TD run and taking a screen pass for 36 yards in limited action. He's a player to keep an eye on Friday, because he's pushing to be a full-time option if Lewis gets hurt during the regular season.
There is also a lot of competition going on in the receiver corps. Derrick Mason is reunited with McNair, one of the most devastating pitch-and-catch combos in the league in their years with Tennessee. Second-year pro Mark Clayton is locked in at the other starting spot, but the competition is coming for the top backup positions. At the present time, third-year pro Devard Darling and Clarence Moore have those spots locked down, but they've received a serious challenge from youngsters Demetrius Williams and Brian Bratton for their spots on the team. If one of those players can continue to make an impression in the final two preseason games, he could have a shot to climb the depth chart. Perhaps the happiest player to see McNair arrive is tight end Todd Heap. A Pro Bowl-caliber player with the slugs the Ravens used to throw out at QB, hooking up with a quarterback who is renowned for throwing a lot of passes to his tight ends, Heap could rival the likes of Antonio Gates and Tony Gonzalez as the top tight end in the AFC if he and McNair can build an early rapport.
Like the Vikings, the Ravens have a dominant left side of the offensive line, anchored by left tackle Jonathan Ogden. Ogden had toyed with the idea of retirement after the death of his father this summer, but elected to return, joining guard Edwin Mulitalo and center Mike Flynn to give the Ravens a solid left side. The right side is another story. In fact, it's a mess. Guard Keydrick Vincent and tackle Tony Pashos are pedestrian at best and both could be in jeopardy of losing their starting jobs to pair of second-round draftees – Vincent to rookie Chris Chester and Pashos to second-year man Adam Terry. The Ravens are likely to give both of the current right-side backups a long look Friday as they make the tough decision to go forward with the best group to not only open holes for Lewis but, more importantly, to protect the aging McNair.
While the Ravens offense is a little more vanilla than many of their fans would like, the defense remains the engine that powers Baltimore's team. An already strong unit that includes defensive ends Terrell Suggs and Trevor Pryce and tackle Kelly Gregg got even stronger on draft day when the Ravens used their top pick on tackle Haloti Ngata. At 340 pounds, Ngata is expected to replace run-stuffer Maake Kemoeautu, who left this offseason via free agency. With the talent behind them, the slightly undersized line of the Ravens is being asked to simply collapse the pocket as quickly as possible, because, if they do, Baltimore has the horses behind them to get the job done.
The linebackers are led, as always, by Ray Lewis. Although in his 11th year, Lewis has showed little signs of slowing down on the field, although injuries have hampered him in the last couple of years. He remains the most aggressive difference-maker among NFL linebackers and, while he may be limited somewhat as a preseason precaution, don't be surprised if Lewis makes at least a couple of bone-jarring hits on the Vikings. He's joined on the outside by Adalius Thomas and Bart Scott. Thomas was named team MVP last year and, if not for Lewis, would be viewed as a dominant linebacker in own right. Scott, who moved inside last year after Lewis went down, will be on the weakside. He's a solid, albeit unspectacular, player who holds his ground in the running game. The team is building depth behind the starters with Dan Cody, Mike Smith and Dennis Haley, but barring injuries, none of them have a chance to supplant the current starting trio.
Three-fourths of the Ravens secondary is as good as it gets, headed by safety Ed Reed. A legitimate Defensive Player of the Year candidate, Reed dominates games from his free safety position and takes a lot of risks, which often lead to big plays for the Ravens defense. At the corners, Chris McAllister and Samari Rolle are both strong cover corners who, in their eighth and ninth years respectively, are starting to lose a half-step in coverage but remain among the best cover guys in the league. The only question mark is at strong safety, where a battle is on between rookie Dawan Landry, second-year man B.J. Ward and undrafted rookie Gerome Sapp. The battle is said to be up in the air, but whoever wins the job will likely be targeted as the clear weak link of the secondary.
When the Vikings take the field in the home preseason finale, they will have a lot to look at – both with their efficient new West Coast Offense and a Tampa-2 defense that is still in the formative process. The new-look Ravens could be a good test for both, as each team looks to test its own new personnel against a team many believe has a legitimate shot at making the playoffs.
Billick, Ravens Have Something to Prove
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