Ravens find right mix in mixing up offense Holmes, Zeier put potent unpredictability back into team formula

September 29, 1998|By Mike Preston | Mike Preston,SUN STAFF

As the group of reporters crowded around quarterback Eric Zeier, Eric Green walked by and joked about Zeier getting the ball to the tight end more often.

It was a good-natured gibe, but it spoke about the state of the Ravens' offense. The Ravens have apparently found their new quarterback in Zeier, their running back of the future in second-year player Priest Holmes and put the long ball and some unpredictability back into the offense.

It was never more evident than Sunday night, when the Ravens (2-2) defeated the Cincinnati Bengals, 31-24, before 68,154 at Ravens stadium at Camden Yards.

And, apparently, this offense is here to stay.

"Priest Holmes did a nice job of running the football," said Ravens receiver Michael Jackson, who has been an advocate of opening up the offense. "But we opened the offense up a little bit, and our passing game opened it up for the running game. I think we'll stay with what is working. Until it breaks down, we shouldn't fix it."

If there was one major reason for the improvement in the Ravens' offense, it starts with Zeier. After replacing former starter Jim Harbaugh in each of the first three games, Zeier made his first start of the season against the Bengals and completed 15 of 20 passes for 254 yards.

Zeier added another dimension to the Ravens' offense. His arm is much stronger than Harbaugh's. Instead of the Ravens' being confined to a running game and short to intermediate passes with Harbaugh, Zeier had the ability to stretch defenses, which Cincinnati (1-3) had to respect from the opening whistle.

Zeier also caught Marchibroda's eye. There is no longer a quarterback controversy.

"Eric is the starter," said Marchibroda, whose team has a bye this weekend. "I have never anticipated not using Zeier, and I wasn't afraid to use him. I always thought we were going to need him before the season was over, and I believe we're going to need Jim Harbaugh somewhere before this season ends. I've always had bigger quarterbacks than Eric, but I've always said that his arm is much stronger than it appears."

Cincinnati, though, had watched the Ravens' three previous games and apparently expected them to stay with the run. But on the Ravens' first play from scrimmage, Zeier play-faked to Holmes, and then passed for 17 yards to Jackson.

That set the tone for the rest of the night. The Ravens threw the ball 13 times on first downs, and ran 15 times. Five of the runs, though, were late in the fourth quarter, when the Ravens were in the lead and trying to control the clock.

"Sometimes, you have to throw deep early even if you don't complete it," Zeier said. "That keeps a defense honest. It lets them know that you have the deep ball in your package. It keeps a defense on its toes. Then when you mix in some reverses and other plays like that, defenses start to guess, and they don't want to be in that position."

The Ravens ran a reverse to Jermaine Lewis early in the game, and then a fake reverse to him in the second. Instead of throwing short passes in the flat to their running backs, fullbacks and tight ends, the Ravens got their big playmakers involved in the offense.

Lewis had four catches for 122 yards, including a 73-yard reception off a stop-and-go route for a touchdown early in the second quarter. Jackson had four catches for 80 yards, including a 40-yarder over the middle. Unlike the season opener, when the Ravens didn't go after Pittsburgh's suspect cornerbacks, the Ravens attacked the Bengals' cornerbacks, Ashley Ambrose and rookie Artrell Hawkins.

Green worked the underneath routes with two receptions for 24 yards.

"I think the pass set up the run," said Ravens left offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden, who along with right tackle Orlando Brown manhandled Bengals defensive ends Michael Bankston, Clyde Simmons and Jevon Langford, and outside linebackers Reinard Wilson and James Francis. "The Bengals came out looking for the run, but when that didn't occur, they didn't know what happened."

Said Zeier: "The pass and run feed off each other. If you can develop a good mix, then you should have a pretty consistent and effective offense. The offensive line did a good job of opening some holes, and it was nice just to hand the ball off and watch Priest run. The running game made our play-action passes much more effective, and we had all phases going."

After three different running backs started in four games, Holmes has emerged as the new starter. He spent most of the past 1 1/2 years on special teams, but made his NFL debut as a starter against the Bengals and finished with 173 yards on 27 carries. Holmes not only made solid decisions, but he also accelerated at the point of attack, made some great cutback moves and picked up the blitz on pass protection. Fullback Roosevelt Potts may have had his best day run-blocking in a Ravens uniform.

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