ATLANTA - To keep Michael Vick from further revolutionizing the quarterback position, the Ravens need to change the complexion of today's game with the Atlanta Falcons.
Instead of allowing the fleet-footed Falcons quarterback to use the Georgia Dome for another track meet, the Ravens want to turn this matchup into their own personal marathon.
Controlling Vick boils down to the Ravens controlling the clock. A 7 1/2 -point underdog, the Ravens (3-4) might be able to upset the surging Falcons (4-3) if they can compound a fast start with slow, methodical drives.
"Our job as an offense," said quarterback Jeff Blake, who will make his second Ravens start today, "is to hold the ball as much as possible, try to keep our defense off the field and try to keep the ball out of Michael Vick's hands."
The Ravens, who are a game behind the AFC North-leading Pittsburgh Steelers, can execute this patient game plan by taking an early lead or keeping Atlanta within striking distance.
Falling behind early would foil this strategy. But the Ravens don't have to be told what happens when a team doesn't show up in the first half.
Last Sunday, the Ravens trailed the Pittsburgh Steelers 28-3 just 25 minutes into the game.
"That'll be the test, to see if we learned our lesson," Ravens outside linebacker Peter Boulware said. "We can't get far behind like we did against Pittsburgh. We've got to be more focused in the first half and put together a whole game."
As a ball-control team, the Ravens aren't built for comebacks. They are 0-4 this season when trailing at halftime.
"We realize that we've got to be ready to go on that first snap," Ravens center Mike Flynn said.
While Atlanta relies on Vick's speed, the Ravens lean on the power of running back Jamal Lewis.
Coming off a season-low 34-yard rushing performance, Lewis is vowing to rebound against the Falcons and their 19th-ranked run defense. The key is getting a lineman on Atlanta's high-motor inside linebacker Keith Brooking, who doesn't have the strength to plow through blocks.
"I think man-to-man, we can pound the ball on them," Lewis said. "I think we can play more physical than they can play."
There's a risk of putting the ball in Lewis' hands these days. After not losing a fumble as a rookie in 2000, Lewis has coughed up the ball to the other team three times this season, second most in the NFL.
"It's more mental than anything," Lewis said. "You have to be aware of what's going on. You can't do too much. Sometimes, you just have to secure the ball and go down."
The Ravens' offense has a different look with Blake, who is replacing injured starter Chris Redman (back) for the second straight week.
An 11-year veteran, Blake brings more experience and agility as well as a stronger arm. The Ravens have highlighted more downfield throws in the playbook but have to resist the urge to become too pass-oriented.
"The temptation is to throw the ball a little more," Ravens offensive coordinator Matt Cavanaugh said. "But the trap you fall into is throwing 50 times a game and not getting the ball in the hands of a very good back."
And perhaps quickly putting the ball back in the hands of Vick, the Falcons' leading passer and rusher.
The Ravens' defense can't afford such pressure these days. All-Pro linebacker Ray Lewis will miss his fourth straight game, and the burden of his absence has worn on the defense each week.
In 15 quarters with Lewis in the lineup, the Ravens' defense allowed 42 points. In 13 quarters without him, the defense has given up 84 points.
Not seeing Lewis in the middle of the Ravens' defense won't go unnoticed.
"That's definitely going to make a difference," Falcons receiver Shawn Jefferson told Atlanta reporters. "Ray Lewis is like Lawrence Taylor. He changes the way the game is played. Lewis being out is certainly a plus for us."
When the Falcons are on offense, Ravens coach Brian Billick says his biggest fear isn't Vick. His concern is that his players will become so fixated on Vick that they let other Falcons beat them.
"We will either keep him boxed in, we will tackle him, or we won't," Billick said. "What you can't do is get so focused on just him that you let a Warrick Dunn have a 140-or-some-odd yards rushing or you let the receivers run free down the field. It's sort of like the [Michael] Jordan rule. OK, let him have his 40 points and cut down everyone else and see what you can do."
Vick is most dangerous in how he keeps drives alive by running, throwing and throwing while he's running. Atlanta has converted 44 percent of its third downs and leads the league in time of possession.
But the Ravens want to make him one-dimensional, which means getting a lead, taking chunks of time off the clock and forcing Vick to beat them with his arm.
"You'd rather him throw the ball than run it," Ravens defensive end Adalius Thomas said.
While their focus is on Vick, the Ravens are still eyeing the bigger picture. In what has been a surprising season, the Ravens want to wrap up the first half of their season by beating the odds again today.
"We could be .500 at the break," Flynn said. "I don't think a lot of people were expecting that from us and I'm sure some of us at times had some doubts, especially starting out 0-2. So, this is a big game for us."
Ravens today, Opponent:Atlanta Falcons
Site:Georgia Dome, Atlanta
TV/Radio:Ch. 13/WJFK (1300 AM), WQSR (102.7 FM)
Line:Falcons by 7 1/2
SunSpot:For more coverage, visit sunspot.net/ravensInside
Scouting report,rosters, statistics and more. [Page 10d]