Receivers playing catch-up

QB woes exacerbated by Ravens' lack of game-breakers

November 03, 1999|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,SUN STAFF

Coach Brian Billick points to a list of reasons why the Ravens have stumbled through the first half of the 1999 season with one of the weakest passing attacks in the NFL.

The Ravens have turned to three different quarterbacks, and each change affects the chemistry between passer and receiver. Injuries on their offensive line have affected the team's ability to protect the quarterback at times. And the Ravens continue to lack the single threat -- that "go-to guy" -- that can put weekly pressure on opposing defenses and set the tone for the rest of the receiving corps to succeed in specified roles.

There are additional reasons why the Ravens are ranked 28th in the league in passing offense, are averaging a paltry 158.7 yards a game and have produced just five touchdown passes in seven games.

Receivers have failed to get open on many occasions, and quarterbacks Scott Mitchell, Stoney Case and Tony Banks have missed receivers when they do break open. And consider that their top two receivers, Qadry Ismail and Justin Armour, are players whom no one else wanted before they landed in Baltimore.

Billick has referred to Ismail and Armour as players taken off "the trash heap of the NFL."

Although Ismail (27 catches, 339 yards, one TD) and Armour (19, 329, two TDs) have successfully revived their fading careers through the first half of the 1999 season, Billick repeatedly describes them as "role players."

"Any improvement you'll see from Qadry and Justin between now and the end of the season is somewhat limited. They're veterans, and their game is what their game is," Billick said. "Any improvement you'll see outside [at wide-out] also will come from a certain level of proficiency from the quarterback position, how much pressure there is in the pocket, and so on."

The second half of the season holds more questions involving the collection of Ravens wide-outs.

When will Jermaine Lewis begin to resemble the playmaker who caught a combined 83 passes for 1,432 yards and 12 touchdowns in his previous two seasons? Lewis, still trying to carve a niche in Billick's West Coast offense, has yet to find the end zone in 1999 and is averaging just 9.7 yards on 15 receptions.

Will Patrick Johnson show any promise to justify his selection as a second-round draft pick a year ago? Johnson, who had another sparkling preseason, has played in only three games. He failed to get into Sunday's 13-10 loss to Buffalo, even though he was active. Johnson has five catches for 109 yards and a touchdown, a 52-yarder that was a key play in a come-from-behind victory in overtime in Atlanta.

Does the recently acquired Marcus Nash have a future in Baltimore? Nash, 6 feet 3, 195 pounds, a first-round draft pick last year, was with Denver and Miami before joining the Ravens.

Has anybody seen Billy Davis? A year ago, he caught a career-high 39 passes playing opposite Michael Irvin in Dallas. So far in 1999, he has given the Ravens fine special teams play and one reception for eight yards.

"There's no way I can subject this team or the quarterback to just throwing in a new bunch of guys in there and saying I'll just change players and that will be the answer," Billick said.

Part of Billick's plan was foiled when rookie wide-out Brandon Stokley separated his shoulder in training camp. Stokley, who might own the surest pair of hands on the team, re-injured the shoulder two weeks ago and is out for the season on injured reserve.

Billick is puzzled by Lewis' lack of production.

"We would like to get the ball to Jermaine more. Part of that is the responsibility of the quarterback, part of it is Jermaine," Billick said. "He's not showing up deep the way I've seen him do it before. His route-running needs to improve. I don't think you can throw it on the system and say we're not utilizing him. If this system does anything, it utilizes talent. If I'm going to jump on the bandwagon of any of these guys, I've got to see a little more."

To no one does that sentiment apply more than Johnson, who might be the fastest player on the team and among its more inconsistent in the coach's eyes. A series of dropped passes last year led him to a midseason benching. This year, one week after his heroics in Atlanta, Johnson dropped a touchdown pass in Tennessee. His practices have been up and down.

"Does Patrick have more physical tools than Qadry Ismail or Justin Armour? Probably. Will he develop them? Hopefully. Does he have them now? No," said Billick, who hinted that Johnson will play often down the stretch in 1999, possibly even some as a kickoff return man.

"Patrick has got a lot of potential, like a lot of second-year players, and I love the way he works. There's plenty of want there. I'd love to throw the big fuzzy arm around him and say get in there Patrick, we'll find a way. But that's not what this league is about. Next year will clearly be a make-or-break year for Patrick."

NOTES: Fullback Chuck Evans (knee), safety Rod Woodson (back) and defensive end Rob Burnett (neck burner) are each expected to play against the Cleveland Browns on Sunday. Starting on Sunday, the Ravens will be playing six consecutive games against their own division. They are the only team in 1999 with six straight division games. Sunday's game features the league's top two tacklers in Ravens middle linebacker Ray Lewis (100) and Cleveland linebacker Wali Rainer (80). The Browns and the Ravens have the two worst passing offenses in the AFC.

Next for Ravens

Opponent: Cleveland Browns

Site: Cleveland Browns Stadium

When: Sunday, 1 p.m.

TV/Radio: Ch. 13/WJFK (1300 AM), WLIF (101.9 FM)

Line: Ravens by 3

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