If Ravens can't pass, they'll fail

October 21, 1999|By John Eisenberg

How are the Chiefs going to play defense against the Ravens tonight? That's not exactly a secret. They'll do it with all the subtlety of a 95 mph fastball aimed at the chin.

They'll do just what the Tennessee Titans did in beating the Ravens 11 days ago -- stack eight or even nine defenders on the line of scrimmage, limiting the run and daring Ravens quarterback Stoney Case and his receivers to make enough plays to win.

Knowing that going in, shouldn't Ravens coach Brian Billick be able to take advantage?

Ravens running back Errict Rhett certainly thinks so.

"If they're going to put that many people [on the line], we should have a great passing game," Rhett said.

But they didn't against Tennessee, and with what Billick keeps referring to as his "limited talent base" on offense, they could have a tough time again tonight, too.

The solution? It's pretty simple, really. One way or another, despite the "limited" hand dealt him, Billick needs to devise some passing plays that could beat a stacked defense. Then Case and the receivers need to make Billick's blueprint come to life on the field at least occasionally.

Until that happens, the Chiefs' defense -- every defense, for that matter -- will play the Ravens' offense the same, suffocating way, intensifying the pressure on a passing game currently ranked 28th in the NFL.

"The only way I know to [soften a stacked defense] is to hurt it on the outside," Billick said. "That obviously puts a premium on the receivers, and on Stoney being efficient and making some big plays."

It also puts a premium on the coach, especially when a defense is telegraphing its plan as blatantly as the Chiefs are.

"That's an aggressive, confident group in any week," Billick said, "and with what we're doing and what we have outside [at the pass-catching positions], I know we're going to see [the stacked front]. You have to find a way to negate it. If you make something happen and get a lead, you can stretch them out."

Granted, there's only so much Billick can do with so much of his ball-handling personnel having been picked off the scrap heap. Case is making only the fifth start of his career, and 14 AFC quarterbacks are rated higher this week. Top receiver Qadry Ismail didn't catch a ball for the Vikings last season. Rhett was on the Ravens' bench.

Asked to reveal what he called "a couple of things that we have identified that this team just can't do," Billick smiled and said, "They're many and varied."

Persistent injuries to offensive tackles Harry Swayne and Jonathan Ogden aren't helping, making the challenge of establishing a running game even harder.

"I'm used to it," the indefatigable Rhett said with a shrug. "This is the first time in my career I've had a pretty good line. I'm used to having a bad line, ranked last. It's no excuse. I still have to do my job, go out and run the ball."

Only, as the Tennessee loss showed, that's just not enough against a defense determined to limit the run. You also have to be able to take advantage of what the defense is giving you. You have to be able to pass.

What can Billick do to get things going? Well, several parts of his passing offense haven't been developed or even fully explored yet, or so it seems. Screen passes could help against a stacked defense. Where are they? And if the supposedly staid Ted Marchibroda could get the ball to Jermaine Lewis, why can't Billick?

Case made two game-winning plays against the Falcons in Week 4 and had a touchdown pass dropped in Tennessee, but he also obviously needs to produce more, too.

"If they're going to put eight or nine guys in the box, that excites me because that's when big plays come," Case said. "Sure, they are going to make you look bad at times, and you're going to make some bad throws, but there'll be some instances when, all of a sudden, something is wide open and you can hit it for a long touchdown pass."

The Ravens' defense will play the same way against the Chiefs tonight, stacking the front against an offense featuring the NFL's second-best rushing game and daring quarterback Elvis Grbac to make plays.

You won't need a calculator to keep score tonight. If anything, this is a 9-6 game in the making.

"Their games have been a lot like our games," Billick said.

But the Chiefs have an advantage with big-play-making personnel such as wide-out Derrick Alexander, a former Raven who would look pretty good in purple right now.

Somehow, the Ravens have to offset that advantage, make some plays and "stretch" the Chiefs' eight-man front.

One way or another, Billick has to make the Chiefs think twice about stacking the run.

He was hired away from the Vikings because of his reputation as an offensive "guru," right? Well, it's time to see some "guru-ing."

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