Running game could get Ravens off ground

October 03, 1999|By KEN ROSENTHAL

ATLANTA -- Week 2 of the Stone Age. Time for the Ravens to get primitive.

Primitive, as in smash-mouth football. Primitive, as in getting Errict Rhett 30 carries. Primitive, as in taking away Stoney Case's slingshot.

The Ravens are 5-20 on the road. The Atlanta Falcons are the defending NFC champions. But if you think the Ravens can't win today at the Georgia Dome, you haven't been paying attention to the 1999 NFL season.

The 0-3 Falcons are ripe to be 0-4, if Ravens coach Brian Billick employs a ground-based offensive attack rather than the snazzy passing game that worked so well for him in Minnesota.

The Ravens are capable of the former, but not the latter.

The question now is whether Billick can adapt to his talent, recognizing that Case is not the second coming of Brett Favre, but an inexperienced journeyman who might struggle to remain his starting quarterback.

That much should be obvious. But then, the shortcomings of Scott Mitchell should have been obvious, too.

Billick committed to Mitchell, but their relationship was an arranged marriage. Case is more like a hot date, exciting at first glance, but maybe not so wonderful in the end.

For his part, Billick is still in the breathless stage, even though Case's 30.0 quarterback rating against the expansion Cleveland Browns was even lower than Mitchell's 44.6 against St. Louis.

"I didn't make the change to Stoney as a temporary situation," Billick said last week. "Hopefully, he'll be the quarterback for the long haul. We'll see.

"The question now is, does the whole equal the sum of the parts? He has everything a quarterback needs to succeed: size, speed, vision, arm strength, confidence and intelligence.

"We're giving him this opportunity. If he hits his stride and uses all of his abilities, we could have a heck of a quarterback here."

Could.

But let's not push it.

The Falcons are allowing 138.7 rushing yards a game, fourth-worst in the NFC. The Ravens are averaging 4.6 yards a carry, third-best in the NFL.

Case's running has boosted that average, but with three of Atlanta's top defensive linemen slowed by injuries, the way to attack today is with Rhett.

This game is winnable in large part because the Falcons are 22-11 with Chris Chandler as their starting quarterback and 1-4 with backups dating to 1997.

But the Atlanta defense suddenly looks vulnerable, too.

Last season, the Falcons led the NFL with a plus-20 turnover differential. This season, they're next-to-last at minus-two, with only two takeaways.

They yielded 7.5 yards a play in last week's 35-7 loss to St. Louis. They've allowed 100-yard rushers in each of the past two weeks. They've recorded only two sacks.

Best of all from the Ravens' perspective, the Falcons generally stick to their base defense, and don't particularly like to blitz.

"You're not going to fool them," Billick said. "They're a lot like Cleveland. The Browns kept the same basic profile, but changed up for us. Will Atlanta do the same thing? I don't know.

"I'm sure they have noticed that Stoney can move and they will prepare for that. They will have their outside linebackers and defensive ends contain more. Those players will come straight up the field instead of crashing so hard.

"Will they blitz more? I don't know. Cleveland did because they knew it was Stoney's first start. Atlanta might because it's only his second start. I think every week Stoney is going to see something different than what was on film until he proves he can handle everything thrown at him."

And yes, Billick is convinced that Case will continue to improve.

"I think the Cleveland game was huge for Stoney," he said. "[Tuesday] was the players' day off, but I spent the night with him going over the Cleveland game.

"I didn't say much, just listened to him explain why he did certain things, made certain throws. I wanted to get his feelings. He is going to get better every time out. He wants to get better and put in needed time."

Billick isn't about to request another leap of faith -- one a season is quite enough. But again, he seems far more enthusiastic about Case than he ever did about Mitchell.

His excitement will seem justified if the Ravens win today to improve to 2-2. But what if Case stumbles and the Ravens fall, then lose next week at Tennessee? They'll be 1-4 heading into their bye week. And Billick probably will consider naming Tony Banks his third starting quarterback in six games.

Case, Banks, Mitchell -- in the end, probably none can be trusted, putting the Ravens back at square one, needing to draft a quarterback. But at least the running game is working. And if the running game is working, the Ravens can be competitive.

The mark of a good coach is his ability to adjust, and Billick appears to be facing a significant crossroads just four weeks into his head coaching career.

If he reduces the number of pass attempts, he will reduce the chances of Case again throwing three interceptions.

All available data points to smash-mouth football.

Cyber Coach, get primitive.

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