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Old 11-26-2006, 06:24 AM   #1
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Default Cause for optimism in Baltimore with McNair as its QB

Cause for optimism in Baltimore with McNair as its QB
Sunday, November 26, 2006

By Ed Bouchette, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

The Baltimore Ravens these days are walking on Air McNair, flying high at 8-2 behind the kind of quarterback coach Brian Billick never had.

Steve McNair arrived in Baltimore in June and quickly blew fresh air into what had become a stale offense, a championship team in decline and a coach given an ultimatum by the franchise's new owner.

Mix in the return to health of All-Pros on defense such as linebacker Ray Lewis, free safety Ed Reed and the addition of four-time Pro Bowl defensive end Trevor Pryce, and you have the kind of turnaround in Baltimore that Pittsburgh saw in 2004.

The Steelers went 15-1 that season, one year after they tumbled to 6-10. The Ravens were 6-10 last season and Billick, told in no uncertain terms by owner Steve Bisciotti to start winning, seemed on his last legs in Baltimore, his Super Bowl victory after the 2000 season a fading memory.

Today, the reinvigorated Ravens can put away the defending Super Bowl champions, probably for good, with a victory in Baltimore. Kickoff is 1 p.m.

"I think Steve McNair has brought a newfound rejuvenation to their offense, if you will," said Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.

McNair's paper stats are nothing to look at. The co-MVP of the league just three years ago when he was in Tennessee ranks in the second division of NFL quarterbacks with a 78.1 passer rating -- barely above Roethlisberger's 75.8. McNair has thrown only 10 touchdowns and has nine interceptions. He also has run 29 times for 70 yards and a touchdown.

"They're very confident in this guy, even though statistically he's not that far ahead of the other guys,'' linebacker Chad Brown said. "That sense of belief can be enough to carry you over. The last few years they never seemed truly confident in their quarterback."

Billick's team won a Super Bowl with run-of-the-mill quarterback Trent Dilfer, who wasn't invited back the following season, and the Ravens' situation at the position went downhill from there. The quarterbacks since Dilfer have been the likes of Elvis Grbac, Jeff Blake, Chris Redman, Kyle Boller and former Steelers third-string castoff Anthony Wright.

Billick was blunt on McNair's value to his team.

"He has provided a presence at the quarterback position that this organization has not had since its inception, a proven ability to move the ball, a proven ability to win games. There is that credibility that he brings that was instantaneous the minute he walked on campus here, and the players responded to it."

McNair has led the Ravens to three comeback victories, and his mediocre statistics mostly were compiled before Billick fired Jim Fassel as offensive coordinator and took over the job himself the past four games. McNair's passer rating is 95.7 in those four games, all victories, with just two interceptions. He threw seven interceptions in his first six games when his passer rating was 64.1.

Baltimore has scored at least 24 points in its past four games. The first thing Billick did after firing Fassel was get together with McNair to talk about the offense. He not only asked what pass routes McNair was most comfortable throwing but at what point in the game.

Billick also has shown a commitment to halfback Jamal Lewis, who has averaged 23.3 carries a game, seven more than under Fassel this season.

"He is running very physical and very strong,'' Bilick said. "We have to get our running game cranked up in order for us to be as good as we want to be."

Lewis, a 2,066-yard rusher in 2003, has not been saddled with legal problems and injuries that dragged him down the past two seasons.

"Brian's doing a great job of packing things together and doing what we need to do," McNair said. "When you feel good about doing something, you go out there and do your best. That's what Brian brings to the table."

The Ravens will never match their great 2000 defense, but this group is among the best in the league. They are second overall only behind Chicago.

Combine that with their league-leading 18 takeaways and an NFL-best plus-12 in takeaway/turnover difference, and it's a devastating combination.

"Turnovers are a big reason why we are sitting at 8-2," Billick said.

Much of it is the return to health of Ray Lewis, who missed all but the first six games last season with a hamstring injury, and Reed, who missed six games in the middle of 2005 with an ankle injury.

"It's great to be playing with Ray and not going against him,'' McNair said.

Pryce was considered on his way down in Denver, but, after signing as a free agent, he looks as good as ever in Baltimore. He has 6 1/2 sacks at left end in their 3-4 defense, behind right outside linebacker Adalius Thomas' eight.

Steelers linebacker Joey Porter acknowledged the renewed strength of the Ravens, then grew tired about the topic.

"We already know what they have on paper, what players they have," Porter said. "I'm not going to sit up here and keep talking about how great they are. It still matters what the Pittsburgh Steelers go out there and do and how we play on Sunday."

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Old 11-26-2006, 10:17 AM   #2
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Default Re: Cause for optimism in Baltimore with McNair as its QB

I sense too much optimism for the Ratbirds with McNair.

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