Ravens' red zone is dead zone Reasons vary for lowest TD rate inside the 20

November 11, 1998|By Mike Preston | Mike Preston,SUN STAFF

It is called the red zone, but it has been more like a wasteland for the Ravens.

The Ravens (3-6) have ventured inside the opponent's 20-yard line 18 times in nine games and have scored only five touchdowns, the worst ratio in the National Football League.

There are a number of reasons for the failures, such as tipped passes, fumbles, penalties, new defensive formations, conservative play-calling and poor matchups.

But there is one universal agreement throughout the league: It's the toughest area to score in.

"The defenses change. You don't get deeper coverages where the cornerbacks sit on the goal line," said Ravens receiver Floyd Turner. "You don't have enough room to turn cornerbacks because the game becomes more lateral than vertical. Teams blitz a lot, which makes you throw quicker."

"Teams try a lot of different things that they wouldn't do in other areas of the field," said Ravens quarterback Jim Harbaugh. "That's because you run out of room. The field has shrunk to 15 to 20 yards. You'll see blitzes that you haven't seen before. Last week we scored [against Jacksonville], but this week we didn't get it done [0-for-2]. We have to be more consistent, that's for sure."

The last three games have been the Ravens' season inside the red zone in microcosm. Three weeks ago against Green Bay, the Ravens had only one trip inside the red zone and that came in the third quarter.

But on first-and-10 from the 15, left guard Wally Williams was penalized 5 yards for a false start. On second-and-15, Harbaugh threw an incomplete pass and left tackle Jonathan Ogden was called for holding. End of threat. The Ravens had to settle for a 45-yard field-goal attempt that Matt Stover missed. Wide left.

"For the most part, we have moved the ball up and down the field, but stalled inside the red zone for numerous reasons," said backup quarterback Eric Zeier. "It's kind of hard to put a finger on just one thing."

One of the Ravens' biggest problems has been scoring through the air. The Ravens have just eight touchdown passes this season compared to a total of 34 in 1996 and 25 last year.

Part of the dropoff is a result of shuffling Harbaugh and Zeier, who each have four touchdown passes in an injury-plagued season. Zeier is more of a pocket quarterback while Harbaugh can make plays on the run. Harbaugh's experience also gives the Ravens an edge in the red zone, but he was hurt in the team's first seven games.

In the eighth game against Jacksonville, the Ravens were 3-for-3 inside the 20, but twice Harbaugh got the Ravens more time by rolling out or sidestepping the pressure and then throwing touchdown passes of 6 yards to Jermaine Lewis in the first quarter and a 3-yarder to Patrick Johnson on a crossing route in the fourth.

But last week Oakland presented the Ravens with new problems. For most of the season the Raiders had played man-to-man inside the red zone. When the Ravens got there late in the first half, the Raiders were in zone coverage. They also showed Harbaugh a blitz the Ravens had not seen.

Harbaugh was forced to call two timeouts in the last minute of the first half. He was eventually sacked for a 7-yard loss on second-and-10 at the 10 with 40 seconds left in the half while also bruising his lower spine on the play.

Zeier entered and handed off to Priest Holmes off left guard for a 5-yard gain on third-and-17 as the crowd booed. Stover eventually kicked a 30-yard field goal.

"We had passes called," Harbaugh said of recent criticism about the Ravens being too conservative. "One play Priest just got covered well and we also failed to pick up a sight adjustment. We had two-man beaters [man coverage] called, but they were in a zone and we ended up taking a sack."

Zeier defended coach Ted Marchibroda's decision not to throw.

"Because of the nature of the injury and how quickly it happened, I didn't get a chance to warm up," said Zeier. "It was the kind of game where you needed field goals and I thought it was a good decision instead of having me throw cold."

Harbaugh said the Ravens had another great chance to score against Oakland early in the fourth period on second-and-goal from the 7, but tight end Brian Kinchen didn't break open until late and he had to throw to fullback Roosevelt Potts for a 2-yard gain.

Harbaugh was sacked on the next play and Stover kicked the game-winning 30-yard field goal.

"Once you get inside the 20, everything has to be so synchronized," said Don Strock, the Ravens quarterback coach who calls the plays. "We've spent a lot of time on that situation and we've got to keep working at it."

During the past two seasons, the Ravens had their bread-and-butter plays inside the 20, like the "skinny post pattern" to Lewis or Derrick Alexander, or the fade route to Michael Jackson.

But with the "quarters" approach played by the Packers, Steelers and Raiders, teams are putting safeties on the inside coverage inside the 20-yard line to support the run, and then double the wide receivers, which has cut off that pattern.

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