No question, Ravens seek answers

Grbac status up in air

defense is struggling


NFL Week 7

October 28, 2001|By Jamison Hensley | Jamison Hensley,SUN STAFF

For the first time this season, the Ravens are unsure of the status of their quarterback as well as their defense.

In today's matchup of two free-falling AFC Central teams, the Ravens (3-3) take on the Jacksonville Jaguars (2-3), with quarterback Elvis Grbac being a game-time decision because of bruised ribs, and their defensive edge equally questionable.

While Grbac's injury is no surprise given the team's shaky pass protection, the vulnerability of a once-ruthless defense has sideswiped the Ravens.

Falling asleep in the red zone and flinching on big plays, the Ravens may still hold the top overall defensive ranking in the NFL, but that aura of dominance is slipping through their fingers.

The Ravens' defense has surrendered a surprising 55 points and seven touchdowns in two games. That's generous when compared with last season, when the defense gave up just 16 touchdowns in 16 games.

In marking the Ravens' first game at PSINet Stadium since Oct. 7, this homecoming is being regarded as an awakening for the defense.

"We have to earn respect every single play, every single game," Ravens safety Rod Woodson said. "And I don't know if we've done that completely yet. I don't know if we've gone out there to get that respect every game.

"I think somewhere along the line we thought people should respect us just because we're the Baltimore Ravens and have gotten a ring from last year. It's not going to happen. I think we've all realized that now."

The Ravens' defense better make a stand when Jacksonville comes to town. In their three visits to PSINet, the Jaguars have averaged 37 points, as quarterback Mark Brunell and receiver Jimmy Smith seemingly engage in a game of flag football every time.

In nine meetings with the Ravens, Brunell has completed 62.8 percent of his passes and has thrown for 300 yards six times. Likewise, Smith is averaging 116 yards against the Ravens, the third-best per-game receiving mark against an opponent in the NFL since 1970.

"They are a vertical passing team," Ravens defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis said. "That's what they are set up to do. Mark Brunell is an excellent quarterback and excellent at throwing deep balls. He has great strength to throw the ball deep and across the middle and great touch and accuracy on the deep pass. So they play to their strengths."

That means the Ravens need to tidy up some glaring loose ends.

Big plays have tripped up the Ravens, who have given up eight plays covering 27 yards or more in their past seven quarters. And the red zone has flattened them as opponents have scored five touchdowns in the past seven trips inside the Ravens' 20-yard line.

"Big plays are going to determine all of our games," said Ravens cornerback Duane Starks, who was victimized by Smith for touchdown passes of 45, 43 and 40 yards in Jacksonville's last trip here.

"If we give up big plays, we can't win unless our offense is scoring points. On the other hand, if we make big plays, we can win every game. That's going to be the key."

Offensively, Grbac headlines a growing list of wounded Ravens. During practice this week, the Ravens were without their starting quarterback (Grbac), running back (Terry Allen) and leading receiver (Shannon Sharpe).

After spraining his left ankle last Sunday in Cleveland against the Browns, Allen is giving way to backup Jason Brookins, the first-year energetic back who will make his first NFL start.

And Sharpe, who has been resting a knee injury, wouldn't miss this chance to play or opportunity to sound off on the Ravens' two-game skid.

"I really do feel the guys have looked at themselves in the mirror and come out refocused," he said. "We really don't have a choice. We don't have anywhere to go but up because we've been down the past two weeks. If you think about it, Green Bay blew us out and the same thing with Cleveland. We're really ticked off about that."

Changes again hit an offensive line searching for an identity after allowing six sacks in the second half against the Browns.

Left guard Edwin Mulitalo, who has missed the past two games, has recovered from knee surgery, and Kipp Vickers will shift from left guard to right tackle, where he'll rotate with Sammy Williams. It will be the third start at a different spot on the line for Vickers, who will add more of a leadership role beside first-year right guard Bennie Anderson.

Grbac, meanwhile, has not ruled himself out despite not taking any repetitions with the first-team offense. If he decides that he can't go after pre-game warmups, Randall Cunningham will make his first start as a Raven. If Grbac feels he can play, the Ravens have no reservations about starting a quarterback who did not take a snap in practice all week.

"I'm more concerned with is he really healthy enough to play?" Ravens offensive coordinator Matt Cavanaugh said. "He'll be the judge of that come Sunday. The game plan we have in is not a brain tease for him. That part of it is not a real stretch. I want to make sure in his own mind he's convinced he's healthy enough to play."

Jacksonville has lost three straight and hasn't won since Sept. 23. Meanwhile, the Ravens are looking to avoid dipping below .500 for the first time since 1999.

"We're both in a win situation," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "They understand the ramifications of losing four in a row. We understand the ramifications of losing three in a row. So, both teams have a great deal at stake."

Ravens today

Opponent: Jacksonville Jaguars

Site: PSINet Stadium

Time: 1 p.m.

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

Line: Ravens by 7

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