Saints host Ravens

Published 9:43 pm Saturday, October 28, 2006

The last time the Baltimore Ravens came to town, it was two days before Hurricane Katrina blew apart the Superdome’s roof.

Apathy defined the ambiance of a half-full arena during the Ravens’ 21-6 preseason victory over a Saints squad that was about to endure four months of displacement and a lot more losing.

This season, visiting teams have yet to win in the rebuilt Superdome, where the revamped Saints (5-1) have delighted sellout crowds — not to mention sympathetic television audiences — with victories over Atlanta, Tampa Bay and Philadelphia.

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“Obviously, they are the sweethearts of the league, everybody loves (them), and deservedly so,” Baltimore coach Brian Billick said this week. “You go in and beat them, you might as well go and beat up on Mother Teresa — you know? ’You scums, what are you doing here?’

“But, that is what we are going to try to do.”

The Ravens (4-2) can hardly afford to be polite guests, having lost two straight going into last week’s bye.

The week off came at a good time, primarily because quarterback Steve McNair needed the rest after being knocked out of Baltimore’s last game with a concussion and strained neck.

McNair practiced this week with the first team and expected to be ready.

“He is ready to go,” tight end Todd Heap said after seeing McNair practice this week. “You couldn’t tell anything about any concussion. … It was basically like the normal Steve out there.”

It also gave Billick more time to take over the offense after he fired offensive coordinator Jim Fassel. Billick will call the plays for the first time this season in a stadium where crowd noise has disrupted visiting teams.

“This will be like nothing they have ever heard,” Billick said of his players. “I have been in that building when it has been cranked. … The noise doesn’t go anywhere. It is as hard a dome to play in as there is.”

But recent history shows Baltimore has done well coming off a week’s rest, having won the next game after a bye four seasons running.

Past trends matter little to the Saints, who seem to have entered a new era under rookie coach Sean Payton. But Payton does have memories of facing the Ravens, and they aren’t good.

He was the Giants’ offensive coordinator in Super Bowl 35, when the Ravens shut down the Giants in a 34-7 romp.

“That’s a bad horror movie for me,” Payton recalled.

These Ravens, like that Super Bowl team, are known for defense, led once again by linebacker Ray Lewis, who has a team-high 39 tackles and has assisted on 11 more.

The Baltimore defense is allowing only 11.5 points per game, the third-lowest average in the league. The Ravens have 19 sacks, most of them by linebackers executing a confusing array of blitzes from a 3-4 defense.

They may present the toughest challenge of the season for New Orleans’ revamped offensive line, which has new starters at every position from last season, including rookie guard Jahri Evans and right tackle Jon Stinchcomb, who never started before this year.

“This defense challenges you before the ball is even snapped, just recognizing your assignment,” Stinchcomb said. “We’ve seen a lot of film where there’s been some confusion on the offensive line. Second, they’ve got a great group of athletes. So, one is recognizing who you’ve got to block, and two is getting the job done, which is not an easy task.”

So far, the Saints’ new line has allowed only six sacks, even shutting out a Philadelphia defense that had 23 coming into the Superdome two weeks ago.

Quarterback Drew Brees has taken some pressure off by throwing quickly and accurately to receivers Joe Horn and Marques Colston, as well as running back Reggie Bush, who catches the ball coming out of the backfield or lining up as a receiver. The Saints also expected receiver Devery Henderson, who missed the last three games with a shoulder injury, to be back this weekend.

Meanwhile, Deuce McAllister has averaged 4.9 yards a carry, the only question with him being how well he has recovered from a minor hamstring injury against Philadelphia.

Bush said the Saints respect the Ravens’ defense, but won’t be intimidated.

“Anytime you have a defense that blitzes a lot like them … your opportunities come more to make big plays, because it’s either they’re going to get you or you’re going to get them,” Bush said. “There’s definitely going to be some situations where I could be possibly matched up one-on-one with some guys. Anytime I feel like I get a one-on-one matchup, I feel like I can win.”