Opportunity knocks, but it's Jags at door

Division leader serves as Ravens barometer

November 23, 1999|By Mike Preston | Mike Preston,SUN STAFF

After preferring to play three straight road games to test his team, coach Brian Billick eagerly awaits the Ravens' next two home games against the Jacksonville Jaguars and Tennessee Titans.

It's a great opportunity for the Ravens (4-6) to climb back into contention and reach the .500 mark. But based on Sunday's 34-31 win over the Cincinnati Bengals, Billick might be asking for too much too soon. Matt Stover had to kick a 50-yard field goal as time expired to lift the Ravens past the Bengals (1-10), the NFL's worst team of the 1990s.

The Ravens' co-ranked No. 1 defense was carved up for 348 yards of total offense and their special teams yielded substantial return yardage, including an 86-yard punt return for a touchdown in the fourth quarter.

It was a lame team effort, but the Ravens would have lost that kind of game in the past. Maybe their fortunes are about to change. The true test is Sunday at home against Jacksonville, a team the Ravens have not beaten in seven tries.

"Yesterday was certainly an entertaining game," Billick said. "There's an old adage that says if you can play that poorly and win the game, then you're improving, because we did not play well at all. It was across the board. If it were just one individual, it would be much easier to understand. Whether our performance was a product of three games on the road or a game at Cincy sandwiched in between [two against] Jacksonville, I don't know. We had a good week of practice, but we weren't very good.

"It tests you going on the road for three games, and you learn some things about yourself that you didn't know," Billick said. "I'm thankful we play Jacksonville [9-1] and Tennessee [8-2] in the next two weeks, two of the best teams in the AFC, at home. We've improved the last couple of weeks, and now we'll see what we're about. We'll see what we are made of."

Billick didn't like too much about his team Sunday. He admired quarterback Tony Banks' gutsy performance despite being sacked seven times. His confidence level grew for Stover, as it did for seldom-used receivers Patrick Johnson (six catches, 73 yards, one touchdown) and Billy Davis (two, 86). Banks, Stover and cornerback Duane Starks (four tackles, two passes batted down, 43-yard interception return for a touchdown) received game balls, but that's partially because there was little competition.

"Matt got the special teams Player of the Week," Billick said. "I told him it wasn't for winning the game. It was for making a field goal that prevented me from going out and choking him in front of 46,000 people for the previous kickoff.

"The offensive game ball went to Tony not because of his great play, but anybody who gets the crap knocked out of him the way he did, given the play of the offensive line and running backs, deserves something. Starks just screwed up less than everybody else."

Most disturbing was the Ravens' pass protection. Banks completed 24 of 40 passes for 274 yards and two touchdowns, but he earned every yard. Right tackle Everett Lindsay had a poor game, as did running backs Errict Rhett and Priest Holmes and fullback Chuck Evans with their pass blocking.

The Ravens didn't get beaten physically, but their technique was extremely poor. The Ravens have to improve quickly, because Jacksonville's defense, similar to the Bengals', relies on the zone blitz.

"I thought Tony played well considering the protection was atrocious," Billick said. "Two times he fell down, which contributed to two sacks, but other times it involved the backs. That's got to be better. The hits he took from behind were not his fault. When you can get beat as quickly and cleanly from the outside as we were, there is not a quarterback in the world that isn't going to give that ball up."

Johnson and Davis gave the Ravens a spark they haven't had offensively all season. By the second half, Cincinnati was backing off the line of scrimmage and concentrating on stopping the pass. Johnson had a 25-yard touchdown reception, but he also dropped another possible touchdown pass.

That's the gamble with Johnson. But the Ravens may be willing to give him more playing time because he gets open, which the other receivers haven't been able to do. A lot of times this season, Ravens quarterbacks have been forced to hold the ball or throw it away because no one was open.

The 274 passing yards were the most by the Ravens this season.

"The level of expectations for Patrick has increased," Billick said. "I'm still not going to put him in a situation where I don't think he can succeed. But anytime a player steps up and meets a challenge, then your confidence goes up in him. Patrick has earned more playing time. He played a good, solid game. No mental errors, which was a positive. His playing time will be adjusted in accordance with Justin Armour's health [calf injury]."

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