Problem of punch

Pro football: With the playoffs on the horizon, the Ravens are in a familiar spot - among the league's lightweights on offense.

November 20, 2003|By Jamison Hensley | Jamison Hensley,SUN STAFF

It has become an annual tradition: As the playoff picture begins to take shape, the Ravens' offense remains the fuzziest part of their game.

Whether the Ravens can finally put it into focus has yet to be determined.

Their talent on offense - which includes three potential All-Pro players - shows a strong upside. Their track record says otherwise.

The Ravens rank 24th in the 32-team NFL in total offense and appear headed toward a finish in the bottom half of the league for the fourth time in coach Brian Billick's five seasons. Too many mistakes and too few points have the Ravens sitting at 5-5 and teetering on a second-half free fall.

"Yes, we have to have more productivity," Billick said. "The reasons for it are fairly obvious. We're a play or two away. That sounds overly optimistic to some people, but given the profile of who we are - strong defense, running the ball, special teams - all it takes is a couple of plays. When we have done that, the balance is very good."

When the balance is bad, it's very bad.

In 74 games under Billick, the Ravens have not scored an offensive touchdown 14 times, including Sunday's 9-6 loss in Miami. That's not reaching the end zone in one out of every five games.

A dominant running game can bolster a drive, yet explosive plays are what spark a team to go the length of the field.

Electric passing attack? Over the years, the Ravens appear powered by candlelight.

Granted, they are tied for 10th in the league in scoring this year, but that number is somewhat skewed by the field position delivered by the league's No. 3 defense. Fifteen of the Ravens' 39 scoring drives have been less than 30 yards.

"We're not going to be the Rams," offensive coordinator Matt Cavanaugh said. "But we don't really care. I don't want to be the Rams. I want to win. Whatever we feel best suits our players, that's what we're going to do."

In Sports Illustrated 's midseason report, the Ravens had three players on the All-Pro list - running back Jamal Lewis, offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden and tight end Todd Heap - which was the most of any team. They have invested five first-round picks in the offense.

What has stopped this offense from converting this potential into points is the passing game.

A lack of continuity at quarterback, as well as at receiver, has left the Ravens as the league's worst air attack.

Billick went through his share of quarterbacks as offensive coordinator for the Minnesota Vikings but he could always depend on receivers Cris Carter, Jake Reed and Randy Moss.

The Ravens, who have gone through 10 starting quarterbacks in 4 1/2 seasons, have not had that same stability at receiver, starting Travis Taylor, Qadry Ismail, Justin Armour, Patrick Johnson, Brandon Stokley, Frank Sanders, Marcus Robinson, Ron Johnson, Randy Hymes and Javin Hunter.

Although this season has had an additional learning curve with rookie quarterback Kyle Boller, the receivers have only helped stunt the offense's growth.

Taylor has not always shown up. Sanders has gotten banged up. And Robinson has trouble standing up.

As a result, the Ravens have produced just 11 passing plays covering 25 yards or more.

"We need to add and augment the receiving corps," Billick said. "If we can do that, then the thing can take off and take off very suddenly. It's not something we can address right now than anyone else can."

The blame for ranking in the bottom five in eight offensive categories cannot be placed entirely on the players.

"I've taken some heat for the play-calling and scheme, and there is some validity to it," Cavanaugh said. "Sometimes, plays I call just don't look very good because they played something different than I expected. But there's also execution. Both of those things have to be in sync or it's going to look bad."

The Ravens have not crossed the goal line in six quarters, with tackle Ogden scoring the last touchdown.

"For the type of offense we are, we're not going to be real exciting and never have been," Cavanaugh said. "But we should be efficient and a lot more mistake-free than what we've been.

"If you're a team that plods along and runs the ball as much as we do and takes their chances on play-action passes, you can't afford to be turning the ball over or jumping offside. Those are the things we have to get corrected."

In fact, the Ravens' offense has produced more turnovers (24) this season than touchdowns (17).

"If we don't beat ourselves," Billick said, "I have every reason to be optimistic to do those things that we did in the first half of the season."

The inconsistency of the offense has caused speculation whether there will be turnover in the Ravens' coaching staff.

"I feel pressure for the offense to play well enough for us to win. That's it," Cavanaugh said. "The only people I really feel accountable to are my head coach, my staff and my teammates.

"That's not slighting anybody. Those are the people that know what we go through. I want to win. Trust me, the minutes I'm spending in here are spent trying to win."

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