Ravens likely to stumble this time during playoff run

January 13, 2002|By MIKE PRESTON

MIAMI - The Ravens want to recapture the formula for success that took them to Super Bowl XXXV last January, but it won't happen this postseason.

That's not to say the Ravens can't win today's opening-round playoff game against the Miami Dolphins, or any other postseason game, because there is no super team in the AFC.

But there are too many ingredients missing from last year's chemistry. The swagger isn't there, and neither is that "us against the world" mentality, two intangibles that went along with a dominating defense, ball-control offense and perhaps the strongest kicking game in the NFL.

Teams have been able to expose certain Ravens defensive weaknesses, and the team hasn't had a consistent running game all year. Even once-dependable punter Kyle Richardson has been shaky at times.

Do the Ravens think it will all come back in less than a week?

"No matter how great you are, you can mess up the team chemistry with changes," said middle linebacker Ray Lewis. "We have most of our starting 11 back, and even with our backups, we can be more dominant than we were last year. We're back to our running game on offense, and that will shorten the turnovers and lengthen the field."

"We don't believe anybody can go 80 yards on us," Lewis said. "There were a lot of times earlier this season that teams only had to go 30 or 40 yards to get a field goal or a touchdown on us."

It all sounds good, and the Ravens need to be in this frame of mind. They need something to re-energize themselves in a playoff run that could include three straight road games. That's all they've got going right now because their best athletes are on defense, and the offense is so inept.

But they'll struggle this postseason because the defense has been cracked and several key players from a year ago are injured. Defensive end Michael McCrary, who had a Pro Bowl-caliber season last year and was having another this season, is out with a knee injury.

Right end Rob Burnett, who put together perhaps his best season a year ago, has only been a shell of his 2000 self because of leg and hand injuries. Mammoth tackles Tony Siragusa and Sam Adams have been effective, but haven't played with the same consistency of a year ago.

McCrary has been replaced by Peter Boulware at defensive end, but there has been a noticeable drop-off at Boulware's strong-side linebacker spot, where Brad Jackson is now starting. Last year it was Boulware and McCrary bringing the heat from the perimeter, now it's just Boulware.

But most of their problems haven't been in the front seven. Cornerbacks Chris McAlister and Duane Starks have been giving up big plays all season. Starks has played so poorly that McAlister has to play the team's top receiver all over the field, an adjustment from usually playing on the right side.

The Ravens would have you believe that McAlister and Starks have played better in the past three weeks, but that's a fabrication. Both players were repeatedly beaten in the Cincinnati game Dec. 23, only to see the receivers drop the ball or quarterback Jon Kitna underthrow them.

Tampa Bay didn't throw a lot because it pounded the Ravens for 123 rushing yards. And Minnesota had quarterback Spergon Wynn.

Enough said.

Last year, Starks and McAlister played extremely well during the second half of the season. This year, teams have gone after them with spread offenses consisting of three- and four-receiver sets. Teams like the Packers, Bucs, Bengals and Browns have been able to run on the Ravens by attacking their outside linebackers and ends, and then having receivers and tight ends block down on Lewis.

This is not the old Ravens defense; this one is more vulnerable.

"Even the best cornerbacks go through hard times, no matter if you're up 47-3 or tied 3-3," Lewis said. "Those guys are exposed every play. But you also have to remember that they are part of the team concept, and sometimes when we're not getting pressure, they are left hanging out there. It's a team game."

The Ravens won't be winging the ball much, or at least that's the plan. They want to smash it out, like last season when they had Jamal Lewis. They stumbled onto Lewis last year when coach Brian Billick was reluctant to play him. This year, they are resorting to running the ball out of failure. For the third straight season, the Ravens have failed to build an offense that is anything more than serviceable.

But it won't be the same without Jamal Lewis. He made an average offensive line look better. He could run inside or outside. Terry Allen and Jason Brookins run hard, but they are inside runners. The Ravens are playing on a shrunken field, and quarterback Elvis Grbac will have to take more chances in the postseason than Trent Dilfer did.

Hold your breath on that one. But overall, it's a sound strategy, even though the Ravens won't reach the levels of last season. Defensively, they physically wore down teams from Denver, Tennessee and Oakland in the playoffs. Ray Lewis personally took apart players such as Steve McNair and Eddie George.

The Ravens are hoping there is enough juice left for one more hurrah.

"To be honest, the offense is taking pressure off the defense when they are not taking chances," Boulware said. "We still have a pretty good group of guys over there. We still have a guy named Ray Lewis, the best middle linebacker ever. We still have the best cornerback ever in Rod Woodson. This is our time to make it happen."

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