Three Burning Questions
How much will Steve McNair help this anemic offense?
Quite a bit. His leadership, poise and understanding of how to distribute the football will quickly pay dividends. His presence in the huddle and locker room will rub off and infuse a confidence this offense hasn't had for some time. McNair can still make the throws and move around pretty well in the pocket, but it will be his leadership and decision-making that will be the most noticeable improvement. McNair has a recent history of injuries and will take a beating behind this offensive line, which brings us to the next question
The line is probably a better group than it showed last season, when it was often forced to try to open holes for Jamal Lewis with eight and nine defenders in the box. It is a big, aging and heavy-footed group. This is a major area of concern for the Ravens, and little was done over the offseason to improve last year's crew. Is the O-line good enough for Baltimore to improve offensively from last year's mess? Yes. Is it good enough for Baltimore to challenge for the NFC North? No.
Do the Ravens have enough depth to withstand the rigors of the season?
Simply put, no. Every team has players it can't afford to lose to injury, but the Ravens are perilously thin in some key areas. After the top two cornerbacks and the top safety, the secondary depth is abysmal, and the starting corners are starting to get up in age. The offensive line struggled mightily last season and little was done to remedy this problem or to create competition. Additionally, three of the offensive line starters -- Jonathan Ogden, Edwin Mulitalo, and Mike Flynn -- are beginning to slow with age.
The player under the microscope
Let's just put it out on the table: Lewis was horrendous last season. The Ravens' poor passing game, suspect offensive line and some injury issues -- as well as Lewis' preseason incarceration -- all contributed to his disappointing season. But most of the blame lies with Lewis. He didn't attack the line of scrimmage or initiate contact as he had in the past. He managed a meager nine yards on 10 carries against the Titans and 17 yards on eight carries versus the Texans -- enough said. After five seasons of playing an extremely physical brand of football, is the wear and tear starting to become an issue? We shall see this year, but Lewis has a lot to play for from a financial standpoint. He signed what amounts to a one-year deal with Baltimore. His natural abilities are still amazing. Lewis is still capable of ranking among the rare running back class that LaDainian Tomlinson and Shaun Alexander sit atop, but certainly not if he tiptoes like he did last season.
Mark Clayton. The addition of McNair will help each of Baltimore's receiving weapons improve. This will be especially true with the maturation of the Ravens' first-round selection from last year. Clayton is quick and explosive, and he has the intelligence and competitive drive to maximize his potential. He is a very sharp route runner for such a young receiver, catches the ball cleanly and makes things happen after the catch. His production in the second half of last season was impressive for a rookie, especially considering the circumstances of Baltimore's offense. Clayton will secure himself as a frontline starter by the end of the season.
Comeback player of the year
Ed Reed. Ray Lewis and Jamal Lewis are worthy preseason candidates for this honor, as well, but Reed gets the nod because he doesn't have to rely on an offensive line to open up holes or a defensive line to keep blockers off him. And oh, by the way, Reed is one of the best players in the game. There are few deep safeties in recent history who are as adept at reading a play and getting the football into their hands. Reed covers a ton of ground, is an intimidating presence and is a big-time leader. The Ravens just signed Reed to a lucrative contract extension because they know he is just too good and competitive to keep down. He is a big play waiting to happen.
With the addition of McNair, head coach Brian Billick might return to his roots a bit more and start throwing the football to set up the run as opposed to the other way around. This offense has been less-than-ordinary for some time now and could use a spark in a big way. McNair, if he can stay healthy behind a poor offensive line, could provide that spark. Baltimore now has an impressive group of pass-catchers and will look even better with an accurate passer getting them the football. TE Todd Heap is a matchup nightmare against any defense, Clayton should mature quickly, and McNair's former teammate in Tennessee, Derrick Mason, has to be the happiest guy in the state of Maryland. The Ravens will use some West Coast philosophies, but they really don't have the big, physical receivers to pull it off. They also will throw the ball deep down the field much more than they have of late. Of course, Billick will still use their straight-ahead zone blocking scheme to hammer the ball in the running game with their two big, powerful runners.
The return of Ray Lewis and Reed from injury will give the Ravens' defense a shot in the arm and will instill much-needed enthusiasm, passion and leadership. The Ravens will play a much stricter 4-3 instead of often showing multiple fronts. They need their defensive tackles to eat space and control the middle of the line of scrimmage, a la Tony Siragusa and Sam Adams, so that Lewis can read, run and hit. To help a less-than-stellar defensive tackle crew, the Ravens drafted Haloti Ngata in the first round of this year's draft. He should help, but don't expect Lewis to run free as he did when this defense was responsible for winning the Super Bowl. The addition of Trevor Pryce will help free up Terrell Suggs as a pass-rusher. This defense has a few holes, but it also has as many individual outstanding players as any defense in the league.
Matt Williamson was a scout for the Cleveland Browns in 2004. Previously, he was director of football operations at Akron and spent three years as a recruiting assistant at Pittsburgh.