Ravens' catch word: slump Once team's strength, receiving unit hurt by injuries, inconsistency

November 15, 1997|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,SUN STAFF

Even in the worst of times, the Ravens have drawn strength from a potent group of receivers. Win or lose over the past two seasons, they always could count on a prolific passing game.

But, as they attempt to bury a 1-5 slide that has dropped them to fourth place in the AFC Central and knocked them to the edge of playoff elimination, the Ravens are trying to regroup in an area where they've never had to worry.

Injuries, inconsistency, infrequent trips to the end zone and added emphasis on the running game have made the Ravens' receiving unit look somewhat ordinary.

Coach Ted Marchibroda summed up his receivers by saying, "It used to be our strength."

Although the Ravens still own the No. 2 passing offense in the NFL, some troubling signs are dogging their passing game.

The health of veteran wide-out Michael Jackson and second-year slot receiver Jermaine Lewis continues to concern the organization.

Jackson, playing with a biceps rupture, missed his first start as a Raven last week and has not scored a touchdown in seven consecutive games.

Lewis, who has missed two games and has been bothered by knee, ankle and leg injuries, has not scored a touchdown since the team's Week 5 loss in San Diego. He limped noticeably in practice last week and is questionable for tomorrow's game against the Philadelphia Eagles. He will give way to normal backup Ryan Yarborough.

Then there's veteran wide-out Derrick Alexander, who has been late for two recent team meetings and will yield his starting position tomorrow to second-year man James Roe.

"We're going through a few things, but we're sticking together," Yarborough said. "If Jermaine is down, I have to do more. Jermaine is still banged up, so I'm going to get a little more time. We'll be all right."

Strategy explains part of the receiving problems. Against the Washington Redskins last month and New York Jets two weeks ago, the Ravens committed more to their running game in bad weather, cutting down on quarterback Vinny Testaverde's throws.

Injuries dictated a drastic shift in last week's lineup. With Jackson and Lewis nursing injuries all week in practice, the Ravens decided to start Alexander in the slot, move Yarborough outside and give Roe his first professional start at wide-out. By the second quarter, Jackson and Lewis had rejoined the offense as wide-outs.

The changes did nothing to energize the passing game, which the Ravens desperately needed to reverse their fortune throughout a turnover-laden, 37-0 Steelers rout.

"It's hard to switch like that in one week," Alexander said. "But that [experiment] is over and done with. We should have stuck with Ryan inside and left me outside. We've got to get back to what we're used to doing."

Marchibroda said he unit's struggles can be traced to Lewis' physical problems. Earlier in the season, while he was accounting for several big plays per game, Lewis was taking advantage of coverage mismatches over the middle and opening up more single-coverage opportunities for Alexander or Jackson outside.

Injuries have slowed down Lewis. Between Wednesday and Thursday, his status was downgraded from probable to questionable with a lower leg injury.

"Jermaine hasn't been able to shake the nagging injuries," Marchibroda said. "He was our big-play guy for the first half of the season. He's taken a couple of big blows on kick returns. Now his knee is bothering him again. He can still run, but he doesn't have that extra burst he needs."

Alexander, the only receiver to score a touchdown in the past three games, pointed to the play chart. The Ravens ran the ball an average of 40 times against the Redskins and Jets, before last week's debacle in Pittsburgh.

"It's not so much the injuries," Alexander said. "I don't think we're going out to pass the ball like we used to. We've switched over to more of a running team. Then we've fallen behind and passed the ball when everyone has been expecting it. We [receivers] are not getting the opportunities we're used to getting."

Next for Ravens

Opponent: Philadelphia Eagles

Site: Memorial Stadium

When: Tomorrow, 1 p.m.

TV/Radio: Ch. 45/WJFK (1300 AM), WLIF (101.9 FM)

Line: Ravens by 2 1/2

Pub Date: 11/15/97

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