Comfort zone, not end zone, root of defeat

NFL Week 8

October 28, 2002|By MIKE PRESTON

THE REAL RAVENS showed up yesterday. Not the ones who upset Denver in Game No. 3 on Monday Night Football or upstaged Cleveland in a nationally televised Sunday night game a week later. Those are the Ravens who have played beyond expectations.

We're talking about the real Ravens, the team with 17 rookies and first-year players still on the roster. If this was a statement game, then hopefully the Ravens got this message and were slapped with some reality: The next time you play the big boys, buckle up your chin straps and bring your "A" game, because a "C" game means a quick exit.

The Ravens were supposed to battle the Pittsburgh Steelers for first place in the AFC North yesterday, but they looked more like pretenders than contenders in a 31-18 loss.

There was a buzz about the Ravens in this town in the first six weeks of the season, and there still might be one going into late November or December. But if that is going to happen, then the Ravens need to grow up and stay out of the comfort zones.

That's when a team starts to feel too good about itself. It happens a lot with young teams.

The Ravens thought they had learned how to win only six games into the season, and then they ran into the Steelers, who happen to have won the AFC Central last year. The same Steelers who have total disdain for the Ravens. The same Steelers who circle their games against the Ravens as soon as the schedule comes out in April.

Pittsburgh brought its passion to Baltimore, and the Ravens left theirs in the locker room for two quarters, long enough for the Steelers to take a 28-3 halftime lead.

"You saw what championship- caliber football looked like in the first half," said Ravens coach Brian Billick. "They're an outstanding team. Our guys got schooled in the first half. They found out how far they have to go. They came out in the second half and took the challenge in saying, `Where do you go from now?' We learned something in the first half, and we were able to apply it in the second half.

"That's what we're going to focus on," Billick added. "I'm not going to spend much time on the first half of that game, because all I'm going to see is 11 guys kick the s--- out of 11 other guys. ... It's just one-on-one, you kicked his ass."

Gosh, has Billick turned into Jim Mora?

But he is right. The Ravens weren't ready to play, which is part of his responsibility.

But it's hard to keep a young team out of the comfort zone.

In the locker room afterward, you heard everything from nervousness to youthfulness to the team's missing defensive starters Ray Lewis and Michael Mc-Crary as excuses. But this loss was from a lack of focus.

How else do you explain 13 penalties for 100 yards from a team that was tied for fourth in the league as the least-penalized? Tight end John Jones had a holding penalty that nullified a 24-yard reception by Todd Heap to the Pittsburgh 15 with 6:06 left in the first quarter.

Outside linebacker Cornell Brown had three penalties (two for holding) in one five-minute stretch. Receiver Ron Johnson had his usual two penalties per game, and fellow wide-out Travis Taylor gets the Can't Stand Still Award for two consecutive illegal procedure penalties that almost killed the Ravens' last scoring drive.

At least holding penalties are physical, but illegal procedure violations are inexcusable.

And we don't even want to get into those two fumbled kickoffs by Robert Tate.

"We need to clean all of that up," said offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden. "When you play against a good team, you've got to play 60 minutes of football. If you don't, then you're not going to beat a team the caliber of the Pittsburgh Steelers."

The Ravens haven't played anyone as tough as the Steelers. They are the macho men in a league gone mediocre. Denver is soft. Ditto for Jacksonville. The Colts are pretty boys, too.

But the Steelers came to town looking for someone to knock the chip off their shoulders, and the Ravens couldn't oblige. The Steelers scored touchdowns on their first four possessions. They basically ran a seven-on- seven drill against the Ravens' secondary because there was no pass rush.

Who was open?

Better question: Who wasn't? Hines Ward, Plaxico Burress, Antwaan Randle El, pick your poison.

Even after receptions, the Ravens couldn't tackle. Neither safety Will Demps nor linebacker Ed Hartwell could wrap up a Christmas gift in the first half. On Pittsburgh running back Amos Zereoue's 35-yard touchdown run in the first quarter, the Ravens lined up in the wrong alignment.

Earth to Ravens.

"We really didn't stop them at all in the first half," said Ravens linebacker Bernardo Harris. "I don't know what it was, but we came out and we were ready, but their level was a little higher than ours. They came out and executed, and we didn't."

Billick said he will forget the first half and focus on the second, when the Ravens scored 15 points and had 260 yards of total offense. He will point out how his team continued to battle despite the early deficit. But the Ravens' loss yesterday was more mental than physical. Pittsburgh obviously has more talent and more veterans who know what it takes to consistently win big games.

The Ravens aren't there yet. They still have a way to go. They have to enter the second stage of life in the NFL. It's one thing to win, and then another to win consistently. The third level is to win big games.

To do that, teams can't stay in the comfort zone.

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