Ravens make steps, now must leap

November 05, 1997|By John Eisenberg

It was all there for everyone to see Sunday at Giants Stadium: just how far the Ravens have come and just how far they have to go.

Their 19-16 loss to the New York Jets was proof that they have taken a significant step forward this season but that they also still need to take another such step before becoming a playoff-caliber team.

The Jets are vastly improved and seemingly headed for the playoffs under Bill Parcells, but the Ravens dominated them for much of the game with a balanced offense and solid defense -- the same assets that enabled the Ravens to dominate the Redskins the week before.

Turnovers and poor play by the special teams cost the Ravens against the Jets, but, regardless of the outcome, the Ravens gained almost twice as many yards as the Jets in giving the kind of performance that would bring them a fair measure of success down the line.

Gone is the pass-happy offense that was prolific and exciting, but also undependable, inconsistent and a poor way for the team to go about trying to win.

Quality teams balance their running and passing games, make an effort to control the ball and keep opposing defenses off balance.

The Ravens didn't do that often enough in going 4-12 a year ago, and they hardly did it at all in the first month of this season, when Bam Morris was suspended.

But they're doing it now -- Morris has gained 306 yards on 67 carries in the past two games -- and they'll win their share of games if they keep doing it.

One of the fundamentals of pro football is that you have to be able to run to win, and Morris, off-field woes aside, gives the Ravens the requisite load-carrying back.

Long-range hopes for a balanced offense are dependent, of course, on Morris' availability; he is scheduled to appear before a Texas judge on Nov. 25 to face charges that he violated the terms of his probation.

The Ravens need leniency from the judge, because they surely need Morris and the offensive balance he brings.

Owner Art Modell has pledged that Morris will play the rest of the season, for whatever that's worth.

The defense also is improved from a year ago, even though it still DTC has many holes, particularly in the secondary. But the run defense is for real now that Tony Siragusa is healthy and the young linebackers are beginning to make plays.

True, the linebackers are still vulnerable to the pass, the secondary is shaky at best and 19 other defenses have allowed fewer points, but the Ravens have played quality defense the past two weeks, and there are signs the unit is coalescing.

Put it all together and you have a major step forward from last year's disaster.

As much as the loss to the Jets was hurtful and left the Ravens at 4-5 heading into Sunday night's game at Pittsburgh, look at the big picture: They already have won as many games as a year ago, and, with four of their last five games at home against average competition, they still could make a run at .500.

The truth is that they're no better or worse than many teams, including the Cowboys, supposedly an elite team.

But the step forward that they have taken this season was relatively easy, from terrible to average, from last place to the middle of the pack.

The next step is the tough one, the step from the pack to the playoffs.

The Jets showed them on Sunday what they would look like if they took that step.

In barely more than half a season under Parcells, the Jets have developed a handful of winning qualities. It's no secret why they're in first place in the AFC East. They don't commit turnovers or penalties, they make plays in the clutch and they're confident of their ability to win.

They have a balanced offense and solid defense, like the Ravens, but those winning qualities -- all of which were evident on their decisive drive in overtime -- separate them from the Ravens.

The Ravens still give away far too much via turnovers and penalties, don't make nearly enough plays in the clutch and lack that inner confidence that all winning teams possess.

Having lost so many close games, the Ravens still seem to be afraid of losing and adding to their legacy as a team that doesn't know how to win.

Changing that attitude -- and changing a few starters in key places, too -- is what they need to do now.

Give them credit for having moved forward from a year ago, for having developed into what passes for an average team in today's watered-down NFL.

But they still have quite a way to go.

Next for Ravens

Opponent: Pittsburgh Steelers

Site: Three Rivers Stadium, Pittsburgh

When: Sunday, 8 p.m.

TV/Radio: ESPN (blacked out in Baltimore area), Ch. 2/WJFK (1300 AM), WLIF (101.9 FM)

Line: Steelers by 6 1/2

Pub Date: 11/05/97

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