Close but no cigar merely smoke screen for Ravens

From The Sidelines

December 01, 1997|By Vito Stellino | Vito Stellino,SUN STAFF

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- The Ravens changed the script, but the ending was the same yesterday.

After blowing fourth-period leads in four straight games against the Jacksonville Jaguars -- dating to their last game as the Cleveland Browns -- the Ravens charged back from a 15-point, fourth-quarter deficit to come within a two-point conversion of forcing overtime.

But backup quarterback Eric Zeier tripped over Jonathan Ogden's feet when he had a clear shot at the end zone and the Ravens lost, 29-27.

That's the story of the Ravens, who are now 1-7-1 in their past nine games after a 3-1 start and 8-20-1 in two years. They always seem to be tripping over their own feet.

The Jaguars are now 6-0 against the Browns/Ravens and the past five games have been decided by a total of 12 points. The margins have been 3, 3, 3, 1 and 2 points.

The one consolation for the Ravens is that this was billed as a character test and they passed it by not tossing in the towel when they fell behind. The Jaguars, after taking a 23-14 lead, had first downs on the Ravens' 11- and 6-yard lines on their next two possessions in the second half. The Ravens forced them to settle for field goals both times to make the comeback possible.

But the Ravens have to worry about being too self-satisfied about making it close. Coach Ted Marchibroda set the tone when he said that they could leave Jacksonville with their heads high. Unfortunately, there are no medals for trying in the NFL. It's a bottom-line, win-loss business. Half the games are decided by seven points or fewer. Good teams win those close games. Bad teams lose them. The Ravens can't be taken seriously until they learn how to win the close ones.

Highlights and lowlights of the Ravens' latest close loss: Turning point: Trailing by two points with 1: 10 left in the game, the Ravens made the perfect call on the two-point conversion -- Zeier on a quarterback draw to take advantage of his running ability. It fooled the Jaguars even though they clogged up his first lane -- the middle -- when Tony Brackens made an inside rush on Ogden. But the left side was wide-open. Zeier could have walked in, but he didn't take a big-enough drop and tripped over Ogden as he started to go to his left.

Shooting gallery: With Eugene Daniel and Rondell Jones out, Stevon Moore playing with bad knees and Antonio Langham hurting after injuring his lower back in the second half, the Ravens' secondary was a shooting gallery and Jaguars quarterback Mark Brunell was the trigger man, passing for 317 yards even though he wasn't razor sharp and missed Jimmy Smith on two long ones.

Ground game: The Ravens rushed for only 58 yards on 22 carries because they had to throw after falling behind, although they weren't very effective running even when they were building a 14-3 lead. It was frustrating that Jay Graham, playing on a tender ankle, gained only 11 yards on nine carries. If he's to have a big role in the future, he has to stay healthy. Running backs have to be able to take a pounding.

Best play: On a day when the secondary had its problems, Langham made the play of the day for the Ravens. He caught a pass that bounced off Smith's hands and made a zig-zag run for 40 yards and a touchdown and a 7-0 lead in the first period. The Ravens need more big plays like that.

Testaverde file: In Jacksonville, they were highlighting the fact that Vinny Testaverde had made key fourth-quarter mistakes in his past four games against the Jaguars. This time, he was watching the fourth quarter from the sideline in a baseball cap after suffering a knee injury late in the second period. He threw a perfect 15-yard touchdown pass to Jermaine Lewis in the second quarter, but didn't produce any other points. He was in his fifth drive when he was injured.

Zeier file: Zeier got off to a shaky start and was sacked on three of his first five snaps of the second half when the Jaguars appeared to be timing his cadence and getting quickly off the ball. He then settled down and led two fourth-period touchdown drives. The Ravens, though, will stick with Testaverde as their starter if he's healthy. That's an admission that they know Zeier is a backup who's not their long-term answer.

Discipline: Marchibroda made a strong statement by benching Derrick Alexander even though he was the team's leading receiver. In an era when coaches often coddle players, it's a sign that he's not going to tolerate players not showing enough interest in their jobs to show up on time for meetings. It helped that his replacement, James Roe, caught four passes for 80 yards.

Redemption: Tight end Eric Green dropped three passes, including a touchdown in the fourth period, but then came back on the next play to catch a 7-yard touchdown pass when Zeier scrambled and found him open in the corner of the end zone. Green caught five passes for 35 yards.

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