Ravens' offense passes muster

Behind Grbac's arm, team quickly adjusts to air-oriented attack

September 20, 2001|By Jamison Hensley | Jamison Hensley,SUN STAFF

The baggage for the Ravens' trip to Cincinnati has changed in a year.

That was then: Nov. 5, 2000. The Ravens brought a burdensome touchdown drought, a three-game losing skid and a desperate hope in Trent Dilfer. This is now: The Ravens are carrying Super Bowl rings, a 12-game winning streak and an instant trust in Elvis Grbac.

As quickly as times have changed, so has the Ravens' offensive profile. No longer reliant on the run, the Ravens are comfortable clinging to the arm of Grbac.

When the Ravens (1-0) restart the season Sunday against the Bengals (1-0), Grbac will lead the way in a fashion that has tight end Shannon Sharpe harking back to his days with John Elway.

"He's as good as I've been around," Sharpe said of Grbac, "and I've been around one who's going to the Hall of Fame in a few years."

The Ravens' new airborne attack hits a major Cincinnati soft spot. Last year, the Bengals gave up 222.6 passing yards a game and ranked 23rd in the league.

The Ravens had few problems with that secondary as well, throwing for a combined 451 yards and five touchdowns. Dilfer broke that five-game touchdown drought with three scoring passes in a 12-minute span vs. Cincinnati.

Now, with Grbac completing throws at an 80 percent clip, pass defense has risen to the top of the Bengals' priority list this week.

"We have to do better than that if we intend to compete with them," Bengals coach Dick LeBeau said. "That's one of the areas we're addressing."

The Bengals did nothing to rectify one of the most suspect defensive backfields in the league. They are banking that cornerbacks Rodney Heath and Artrell Hawkins mature this season and that safeties Cory Hall and Chris Carter exceed marginal expectations.

"With no disrespect for them, they're not big-name guys, but they do play hard and smart," Grbac said. "Sometimes they get out of their position because they do gamble a little bit. But at the same time, we got to be focused in on what we're doing."

Grbac has taken immediate command of an offense in need of direction after losing star running back Jamal Lewis for the season to a knee injury. Completing 24 of 30 throws in his Ravens debut, Grbac set the team record for precision, and his passing accounted for 83 percent of the team's offense.

He had a downfield presence with three passes of 20-plus yards and kept the Chicago Bears' defense off-balance by hitting nine receivers. That wide distribution was the result of taking what the defense gave him.

"Guys understand that as the season goes on, that's going to happen constantly," Grbac said. "There are going to be teams that come in and double somebody to take away a guy that's hot. We've got to have guys that understand that when your number is called, they've got to make plays for us."

The strongest evidence in the Ravens' change in offensive philosophy occurred in the fourth quarter of the season opener.

With the Ravens leading 10-6, they chose to throw on third-and-two. The result: Grbac hit Patrick Johnson at the goal line to set up the game-clinching touchdown.

This is not the same grind-it-out and kick-a-field goal offense.

"Third down on our 30-yard line, no way does Brian throw that ball on third-and-two last year," Sharpe said. "That shows the confidence he has in Elvis."

Said Billick: "Whether I would have made that call last year or not? That's probably not fair to say. But obviously, I was comfortable doing it."

The biggest backlash of the switch is time of possession, a category in which the run-oriented Ravens led the league last season. In their new scheme, the Ravens are more prone to stop the clock with incompletions, which puts the defense on the field longer.

But the Ravens managed time well in the second half of the opener, controlling 17 of the game's final 30 minutes.

"If we're completing passes, then that time of possession concern I have with the different style we're playing now is mitigated," Billick said. "Will we finish first or second in the league in time of possession in the current profile? Probably not. ...

"That was our profile last year as a running team. Defense and run. But that's not us now."

Next for Ravens

Opponent: Cincinnati Bengals

Site: Paul Brown Stadium, Cincinnati

When: Sunday, 1 p.m.

TV/Radio: Ch. 13/WJFK (1300 AM), WQSR (102.7 FM)

Line: Ravens by 7

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