Ravens' air game remains deflated

With team last in passing, unbalanced offense puts heavy onus on J. Lewis

October 14, 2003|By Jamison Hensley | Jamison Hensley,SUN STAFF

Jamal Lewis is looking to catch a break - or at least one teammate to catch a downfield pass.

After carrying the offensive load as well as a few tacklers on his back in Sunday's 26-18 win over the Arizona Cardinals, the NFL's leading rusher stressed the need for a passing game to keep defenses off balance.

Seemingly drawing bigger crowds at the line of scrimmage than the ones in the Sun Devil Stadium stands, Lewis has taken a pounding in running over defenses solely focused on stopping him. He suffered a sprained and bruised shoulder against the Cardinals but did not miss a series.

"Sooner or later, [the passing game] is going to have to pick up," said Lewis, who remains on pace to shatter the NFL's single-season rushing record. "Hopefully, it's going to be real soon, like this week. We need to catch the ball more and be able to take a lot of people out of the box."

On 50 of the Ravens' 57 offensive plays Sunday, the Cardinals placed at least eight of their 11 defenders near the line of scrimmage because they did not have to respect the Ravens' passing ability. Although Lewis hurdled and spun his way to his fourth consecutive 100-yard game, he probably won't be able to carry the load for the next 11 weeks.

The AFC North-leading Ravens (3-2) are the league's most lopsided team, ranking first in rushing and last in passing for the third time in five weeks.

The inexperience of rookie quarterback Kyle Boller combined with the inconsistency of their receiving corps has resulted in a futile 97.2 yards passing per game.

In comparison, no other team in the league is averaging below 130 yards passing per game.

Coach Brian Billick indicated the imbalance is a result of the Ravens having to run the ball to protect the lead during the second half in victories over Cleveland, San Diego and Arizona. But he also admits there will be a time when the running attack is slowed and the passing game will be called upon to win games.

"Until you see the passing game, you're always concerned," Billick said. "But the answer is here. These athletes - not withstanding Kyle - have made those plays in this league. They're capable of that. When the time comes, I have no doubt that they will."

Billick continued to throw his support behind Boller, the lowest-rated passer among NFL starters.

In five starts, the first-round pick has been erratic in underthrowing and overthrowing receivers, totaling under 100 yards three times. Two of his efforts - including Sunday's 75-yard performance - rank among the three worst games in Ravens history.

But the blame can't be laid entirely on Boller, whose best throws often don't result in completions. Receiver Travis Taylor dropped three passes Sunday (two of which hit his pads), and a Cardinals defender ripped away a potential touchdown pass to Frank Sanders.

"[Boller] is a kid that has a great level of confidence," Billick said. "He's got a great awareness of what is going on around him. He's not going to step up and point fingers at the dropped balls. But he recognizes what he's done well and what he needs to do better.

"He wants to do better. He wants those around him to do better. But I'm very confident with where he is at right now and his confidence is not a concern."

A much more experienced receiving corps was expected to ease the initiation for Boller.

But Taylor, the team's No. 1 wide-out, has nearly half as many rushing yards (51) as receiving yards (107). Sanders, who has averaged 62 catches over eight seasons, has no touchdowns despite having a hand on two throws in the end zone this season. And Marcus Robinson, who had 84 receptions four years ago, has yet to make two catches in a game.

The shaky performances of the receivers along with the success of Lewis has whittled the Ravens' pass attempts to 20.8 over the past four games.

"Yeah, I'm disappointed with every drop, no more so than they are," Billick said. "You don't have to worry about that. It's a good, solid group, with regards to the way they work, what they want to get done. There's probably a little frustration with the idea that they're only getting so many opportunities."

Despite the absence of a dependable passing attack, the Ravens' offense has made progress when compared to the first five games of last season. It has produced more first downs, a better third-down conversion rate and a higher time of possession.

But for the offense to take the next major step, the Ravens need to stretch teams down the field. With defenses lined up to shut down Lewis, the Ravens have to take advantage of one-on-one matchups and hit their wide receivers on long comeback routes, deep posts and streak patterns down the sideline.

So far, the Ravens have registered five pass plays covering 20 or more yards, including none Sunday.

"We've responded to the challenge that the defense gives us," Billick said. "But in order for us to set the tone for the game in terms of changing the complexion of the game, you're going to have to make the big plays.

"We know what we have to do to continue to be good, to build toward being a playoff-caliber team. We have to throw the ball more effectively."

Low-flying air show

The Ravens have completed 65 passes out of 126 attempts for 486 yards this season. Projected over 16 games, they would finish with 208 completions in 403 attempts for 1,555 yards. Here's a look at the NFL's worst passing teams the past five seasons with totals/per-game averages:

Year Attempts Completions Yards

1998 424/26.5, Atl. 234/14.6, Tam. 2,413/150.8, Phi.

1999 447/27.9, Tam. 235/14.7, Phi. 2,084/130.3, Phi.

2000 421/26.3, Mia. 207/12.9, Cin. 1,946/121.6, Cin.

2001 413/25.8, Dal. 210/13.1, Dal. 2,218/138.6, Dal.

2002 447/27.9, Hou. 235/14.7, Hou. 2,225/139.1, Hou.

Next for Ravens

Matchup: Ravens (3-2) vs. Cincinnati Bengals (1-4)

Site: Paul Brown Stadium, Cincinnati

When: Sunday, 1 p.m.

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

Line: Ravens by 2

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