Ravens' offense cranks up

`Explosiveness' draws Billick nod, but QBs' mistakes bring frown

August 23, 1999|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,SUN STAFF

Ravens coach Brian Billick envisions an offense that will put together an occasional long drive, avoid turnovers and use its speed to hurt opponents with the big play.

The vision started to take shape in Saturday night's 19-6 preseason victory over the NFC champion Atlanta Falcons.

Quarterback Scott Mitchell and wide receiver Jermaine Lewis awakened together, after so-so starts in the preseason opener against Philadelphia.

They combined for four, key pass plays in an 83-yard drive in the first quarter, resulting in a 24-yard field goal by Scott Bentley.

Tony Banks relieved Mitchell in the second half and rained some memorable bombs on the Falcons, with the help of another awakening wide-out, Patrick Johnson, who broke open the game with an 89-yard touchdown catch late in the fourth quarter.

In addition, running backs Priest Holmes, Errict Rhett and Jay Graham breathed life into a ground game that was silent against the Eagles.

Oh, yes, there were negatives. Mitchell confounded Billick by fumbling twice in the first half, once on a bad exchange from center Jeff Mitchell, the other time after getting hit. The bright side was the Ravens recovered each loose ball. Then there was the enigmatic Banks, whose only two incompletions in a 9-for-11 showing were interceptions. Banks also recovered his own fumble.

"I think we went two steps forward and one step backward, after going three steps forward and four steps backward in Philadelphia," Billick said. "There was heightened awareness [on the field]. It was great to see Jermaine Lewis show up. He was not the primary receiver on a couple of those plays.

"I liked the explosive aspect of [the offense]. It's the blueprint for football nowadays. You're going to get a 10-play drive once in a while, but this is a game of explosiveness. We've got people who can go vertical, and we saw some good signs against a team [Atlanta] that is tough to go vertical against. This time, we caught the ball. We've got to continue to build on that."

Billick delighted in watching his much-maligned, slippery-fingered corps of receivers get a grip for a change. With the exception of a dropped pass by Qadry Ismail, they snared everything in sight.

Johnson stole the show in the fourth quarter, first by making a spectacular, off-balance, 57-yard grab from Banks to set up Graham's go-ahead touchdown run, then by completing an 89-yard score with an impressive burst of speed after the catch.

Now, if only Banks and Mitchell would take better care of the ball.

"The quarterback has got to run an efficient offense, not make the boneheaded play and hit the big one occasionally," Billick said. "I still believe my quarterback is Scott Mitchell [10-for-18, 115 yards], but two fumbles and two big plays wash each other out. We've got to clean that up."

As for Banks, Billick nearly pulled out some of his thinning hair after watching his gifted backup toss a sideline interception in the vicinity of H-back Greg DeLong, on a play that Banks should have killed with a throwaway.

Banks later followed his own recovered fumble by tossing another interception. Of course, he balanced out those bloopers by making two passes to Johnson that not many quarterbacks can execute.

"We were screaming at [Banks] to throw it into Row 20 [on the first pickoff]," Billick said. "He needs to dirt it and live for another day.

"The biggest thing to handling it is not putting yourself in a position where you're going to give in. If we can get him to do the last two things [touchdown passes] and not the first two [turnovers], we've got something."

While he counts on improvement from his top two passers, Billick said he plans to get the recently signed Stoney Case up to a quarter's worth of work against the Carolina Panthers on Saturday. He also said that Wally Richardson, who did not play in Atlanta, should see limited time against the Panthers. Banks could even run some with the first unit.

Billick also watched his backfield rotation of Holmes, Rhett and Graham combine for 75 yards on 19 carries. Much of that was due to the return of left tackle Jonathan Ogden from a hip injury and the presence of left guard Everett Lindsay, who filled in for the injured James Atkins.

Lindsay continues to look like a potential starter, although he could end up at center, where Jeff Mitchell made two mistakes Saturday night that led to sacks.

Defensively, the Ravens have given up 13 points in two games -- all without right end Michael McCrary and linebacker Peter Boulware, their two best pass rushers. Billick has been most pleased with the depth on the defensive line, where backup tackles Martin Chase and Lional Dalton led a huge, short-yardage stand in the fourth quarter that preceded Banks' first big strike to Johnson.

Still, the Ravens' pass defense looked vulnerable, especially over the middle, where the Falcons burned them for the majority of their six passing plays that gained at least 21 yards. Converted safety Rod Woodson reacted slowly on several of the completions.

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