Ravens meet expectations in low performance review


December 22, 1997|By Vito Stellino | Vito Stellino,SUN STAFF

CINCINNATI -- The Ravens lost a game and an opportunity yesterday.

They got a reality check with the 16-14 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals in the season finale that left them in the AFC Central basement with a 6-9-1 record. Before the season, the Ravens were the chalk pick to finish last and they lived down to expectations.

It was a reminder that the Ravens are still in the building stage. Even coach Ted Marchibroda used the "b" word after resisting the term all year long. He said they made progress with a young team.

The Ravens, who have turned losing close games into a cottage industry, were a foot short twice yesterday. They were stopped on fourth-and-a-foot at the Cincinnati 22 in the third period, and Priest Holmes missed making a legal recovery of an onside kick by about a foot with 1: 40 left.

The top priority for next season is for them to learn how to win close games.

The game also exposed several of the team's weaknesses, notably the fact that it is unsettled at two key positions -- quarterback and running back. Neither veteran Vinny Testaverde nor young Eric Zeier has proven to be the answer at quarterback. And the running back situation is unsettled because rookie Jay Graham, who didn't play, hasn't proven he can stay healthy and Bam Morris' future is up in the air because of his legal problems.

The Ravens also lost an opportunity because the Arizona Cardinals rallied to beat the Atlanta Falcons, giving the Indianapolis Colts the first pick and a chance to draft Peyton Manning. Unlike Arizona, the Colts aren't expected to trade the top pick.

Arizona, which now has the second pick, probably will be willing to trade it because the Cardinals are committed to quarterback Jake Plummer. That means the Ravens will have a chance to trade up to get Washington State's Ryan Leaf as a consolation prize. He's expected to be a big-time quarterback, but lacks Manning's charisma.

Highlights and lowlights of a frustrating season finale:

Turning point: After the Ravens cut the deficit to 16-14 with 1: 40 left, they went for the onside kick. Matt Stover's first attempt went out of bounds. On the second attempt, Holmes plucked the ball out of the air and came down past the 35. But the officials ruled he caught the ball just before the 35, so the Bengals got the ball because a member of the kicking team touched it before it went 10 yards.

Ground game: The Bengals came into the game with the worst rushing defense in the league, but they kept blitzing against the run and held Morris to 22 yards in 13 carries. That's not enough to win. The Ravens wound up with 51 net yards rushing because Jermaine Lewis ran a reverse 24 yards.

Zeier file: Eric Zeier had good numbers, passing for 349 yards and two touchdowns. He also didn't throw an interception for his third straight start. But he still looked like a young quarterback as he was sacked seven times and often was fooled when the Bengals blitzed or faked the blitz. The result is that the Ravens' quarterback situation remains up in the air.

Stuffed: The Ravens tried a quarterback sneak on fourth-and-one at the Cincinnati 22 in the third period with the Bengals leading 10-7. But the offensive line didn't get any push, Zeier was stuffed for no gain and the Ravens turned the ball over. That lost opportunity came back to haunt the Ravens when the teams traded touchdowns in the fourth quarter.

Best play: Zeier used his mobility to elude a big rush on third-and-seven at the Baltimore 17 in the third period. He ran to his left and spotted Derrick Alexander open because Bengals defender Jimmy Spencer fell down. Zeier hit Alexander at midfield and Alexander went 83 yards for a touchdown that tied the game 7-7.

Second-best play: Facing a fourth-and-11 at the Cincinnati 49 with two minutes left and the Ravens trailing 16-7, Zeier found Michael Jackson open for a 37-yard play that set up the second touchdown.

Worst play: With 3: 41 left in the game, Bengals wide receiver Darnay Scott, lined up on the left side, ran across the field and broke free when rookie safeties Ralph Staten and Kim Herring blew the coverage. Boomer Esiason hit Scott in full stride and he went 77 yards for the touchdown that gave the Bengals a 16-7 lead.

One short: Rookie Peter Boulware, the odds-on-favorite to win Defensive Rookie of the Year honors, needed one sack to tie the rookie record of 12.5. But he was blanked, although he had his hands on Esiason on a play midway in the fourth period. Esiason not only eluded Boulware, but he completed the pass. Two plays later, Boulware was so intent on getting a sack that he jumped offside on a third-and-four play and gave the Bengals a first down. Boulware also had a 15-yard unnecessary roughness penalty.

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