Stellar defense points up what's missing

November 15, 1999|By Ken Rosenthal

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Let no one mistake what happened yesterday. The Ravens played their best defensive game ever, one of the best defensive games of this or any other NFL season.

It wasn't enough.

It's never enough with this team.

"For whatever reason, we are short by one thing," coach Brian Billick said after the Ravens' 6-3 loss to Jacksonville.

"Whether it's three points to Tennessee, three points to Pittsburgh, three points to Buffalo, three points to Jacksonville. I'd love to lose by four points. I'm tired of losing by three."

Billick was being facetious -- he actually would love to win one of these games by three points, but he lacks playmakers on offense, and his team lacks a winning chromosome in its genetic makeup.

Yesterday could have been a monumental day in franchise history, just like the Pittsburgh and Buffalo games this season, the Pittsburgh and Tennessee games last season and countless others.

But in a game when one play might have made the difference, Aaron "Only The Ravens Wanted Me" Pierce lost a second-quarter fumble at the Jacksonville 20 after catching a 7-yard pass on fourth-and-two.

In a game when the Ravens needed a breakout performance from their biggest threat, Jermaine Lewis played in a funk that earned him a much-deserved sideline tongue-lashing from Billick.

And in a game when field position was everything, Jacksonville's Bryan Barker out-punted Kyle Richardson, and the rest of the Ravens' special teams were abysmal.

Billick could not hide his frustration afterward. He called the special teams "a major problem." He said he could not put a "warm, fuzzy arm" around misfits like Pierce. He freaked over a question about Jermaine Lewis the way President Clinton might if confronted with another Monica Lewinsky.

Who can blame him?

Even with all that went wrong -- the blocked punt that led to a field goal, the losses of Justin Armour and Chuck Evans on top of Harry Swayne, the eight possessions that began inside their 20 -- the Ravens had a chance to win in the fourth quarter.

It wasn't enough.

It's never enough with this team.

Needing 3 yards, Tony Banks failed to complete a pass in two cracks from the Jacksonville 34, with Billick correctly deciding against a 51-yard field-goal attempt by Matt Stover on fourth down -- Stover hasn't hit from that distance since 1993.

Banks threw for only 73 yards after missing most of the second quarter with an ankle injury, and Stoney Case led a two-minute drill to produce the team's only three points at the end of the first half. Tony, Stoney, it doesn't matter. The Ravens need to either draft or kidnap a quarterback.

Their three victories were over teams that have combined for four wins. Their six losses were to teams that are a combined 39-16 (.709). They win the games they should, but rarely the games they shouldn't. And it's downright infuriating, now that their defense is playing at a Super Bowl level.

Again, let no one mistake what happened yesterday. The Ravens' defense was so good, the Jaguars produced their lowest point total since the final game of the 1996 season. Their nine first downs and 132 total yards were the lowest totals in franchise history.

The Ravens finished with six sacks against a team that had allowed only 12 entering the game. They held the NFL's No. 1 rushing offense to 47 yards on 26 carries (it helped that Fred Taylor got hurt). And they held a passing attack that repeatedly has torched them in the past to 2.4 yards per pass play.

It was a breathtaking, electrifying performance -- the Jaguars had a first down at the Ravens' 14 after their blocked punt, and another at the Ravens' 5 in the third quarter, but managed only field goals in both possessions. They also missed a field-goal attempt in the fourth quarter.

If the defense has a shortcoming -- and we're admittedly nitpicking here -- it's that it doesn't force enough turnovers. Only eight teams entered yesterday's play with fewer take-aways, and the Ravens failed to add to their total of 14 against Jacksonville.

Tom Coughlin's conservative play-calling had something to do with that -- Mark Brunell's longest pass went for 12 yards. But the Ravens' average drive started at their 19, while the Jaguars' average drive started at their 44. The Ravens' lone field goal came after they started at their 46 -- their best field position of the day.

One turnover could have made the difference, just as one stop on fourth-and-15 could have made the difference against Buffalo. Again, it would be wrong to hang any of this on the defense. But the failure to create turnovers is symptomatic of the entire team's failure to make enough big plays.

"I think we're getting better," safety Rod Woodson said. "But as long as you're losing, you're just getting better. To turn the tables and take a new stride, we've got to start winning. I know we've got the talent to do it. It's just a matter of getting it done."

They need more players. They need more winners. The defense's performance yesterday should be cherished by Ravens fans forever. But who will even remember in the aftermath of another crushing defeat?

It wasn't enough.

It's never enough with this team.

Close calls

The Ravens are 0-4 in games decided by three points or fewer, making them 4-15 in such games in their four-year history:

1996: 0-4

1998: 1-2

1997: 3-5

1999: 0-4

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