Zeier climbs out of backup obscurity After dismal 3rd quarter, fill-in finds his rhythm in two late scoring drives

December 01, 1997|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,SUN STAFF

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Since leaving Georgia three years ago after a collegiate career filled with exciting comebacks, quarterback Eric Zeier has had precious few opportunities to re-create his magic.

For eight wild minutes down the stretch yesterday at Alltel Stadium, Zeier was a bulldog once again. With starting quarterback Vinny Testaverde watching from the sideline with a knee injury, Zeier shook off the rust that comes with being a backup and brought the Ravens to the brink of a stunning, comeback victory.

In the end, Zeier's final play -- a blown two-point conversion attempt in which he tripped on a draw play, fell and was tackled as he crawled within a yard of the goal line -- will be remembered as the exclamation point of a hard-to-swallow, 29-27 loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars.

What preceded that failure was a fourth-quarter performance that easily qualifies as Zeier's finest sequence as a Raven.

Zeier, who took over late in the first half and stumbled throughout an ineffective third quarter, made the Ravens' last two possessions count by leading the team to two touchdowns, the last of which came on a 7-yard toss to tight end Eric Green with 1: 10 left.

"It's been a long time since I've been in the game and had a chance to move the ball in that kind of situation," Zeier said. "I've still got a lot to learn, a lot of improvements to make. There are some people out there who doubt me, but everybody in here believes in each other."

Zeier earned more believers yesterday by coming back from oblivion to complete seven of 12 passes for 87 yards and his first touchdown of the year. How much did he recover? During a third quarter in which the Ravens did not gain a first down, Zeier did not attempt a pass in two brief possessions. He was too busy looking overwhelmed while absorbing three sacks by the Jaguars.

But six minutes into the fourth quarter, after Jacksonville had extended its lead to 29-14 on a 22-yard field goal by Mike Hollis and seemed to be comfortably ahead, Zeier awakened in the Ravens' no-huddle offense.

It started on a third-and-10 play at the Ravens' 38. Zeier got flushed from the pocket, rolled to his right and found receiver James Roe downfield for a 29-yard gain. Two plays later on a second-and-10, the Ravens caught a break when Jacksonville cornerback Dave Thomas was flagged on the goal line for pass interference on Michael Jackson. That set up Kenyon Cotton's 1-yard touchdown run that cut the Jaguars' lead to 29-21 with 7: 13 left.

On the drive, Zeier overcame dropped passes by Jackson, Green and slot receiver Ryan Yarborough.

"Once he [Zeier] got that first drive going, he really started getting into the flow, and we could see the comeback coming," slot receiver Jermaine Lewis said. "He moved the ball once we went to the no-huddle. He did a real good job."

"Sacks are part of the game, and when it happens on your first series, people are going to take note," Zeier said. "The more you play, the more comfortable you get, and the more comfortable your teammates are going to get with you."

After the Ravens got the ball back with 4: 49 left, Zeier looked comfortable indeed. On first down at the Ravens' 31, he lofted a perfect 23-yard strike down the right sideline to Jackson, who reached high over cornerback Aaron Beasley to grab it.

Six plays later, on a fourth-and-two at the Jaguars' 27, Zeier calmly took a three-step drop and hit Jackson on a slant-in for a 9-yard gain to the 18.

After runs of 8 and 2 yards by Earnest Byner gave the Ravens a first-and-goal at the 7, Zeier watched Green drop a touchdown pass over the middle. On the next play, Zeier scrambled to his right and found Green in the right corner of the end zone for the score.

Then came the two-point attempt that went awry, although that did not diminish Zeier's efforts in the eyes of his teammates. Except for a brief stint as a starter in Cleveland as a rookie, third-round draft pick in 1995, Zeier has barely seen action. He played for only one half last year, and until yesterday, he had completed only two of seven passes for 16 yards in 1997.

"Eric's performance is something we can build on," Jackson said. "He made some big plays. I think we now have two quarterbacks our team has confidence in. If Vinny gets hurt, we know Eric can come off the bench and do the job."

Green said: "I think that's what we need from a backup quarterback, a guy who could come in there and lead the team to a near comeback. It's a tribute to Eric Zeier. He stepped in there and did a wonderful job."

Pub Date: 12/01/97

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