Vintage Ravens return, but with questions in tow

On the Ravens

Ravens 30, Steelers 13

September 20, 2004|By MIKE PRESTON

THE RAVENS CAME away from yesterday's game feeling good about themselves because they were the Ravens of old.

It was the Lewis boys again, Ray and Jamal, controlling the pace as the Ravens trounced the Pittsburgh Steelers, 30-13. The Ravens and their fans celebrated into the evening, and they deserved to after rebounding from the shameful performance against Cleveland last week. Never have the Ravens beaten Pittsburgh in such convincing fashion.

But as of 7 a.m. today, coach Brian Billick is back in his office trying to get this team ready for Cincinnati. The Ravens have just as many questions in victory as in defeat.

Can they find a replacement for injured tight end Todd Heap, who might miss the next two games? The Ravens might also be searching for a fifth defensive back because Deion Sanders has a hamstring injury and Billick made a major mistake by cutting safety Gerome Sapp last week.

And then there is the discipline problem. The Ravens had 10 penalties for 123 yards, including five for unsportsmanlike conduct. Safety Ed Reed couldn't keep his helmet on. Sanders took his helmet off because he was in Prime Time mode. Cornerback Chris McAlister got caught assaulting receiver Hines Ward, and linebacker Ray Lewis got called for a smackdown.

Is this an NFL team or Ringling Brothers?

"We have a big challenge to find some personal discipline," Billick said. "That's a real focus for us. We've done some dumb things."

Billick also must take some blame, but more about that later.

More importantly, at least as far as yesterday, the Ravens kept Pittsburgh and its three talented receivers, Ward, Plaxico Burress and Antwaan Randle El, off the field, especially in the first half. The running game also took pressure off second-year quarterback Kyle Boller, who isn't good enough yet to carry an offense.

Boller completed 10 of 18 passes for 98 yards. Those aren't staggering numbers, but he had zero turnovers and only collided with Jamal Lewis once (that's a good day). Boller ran eight times for 34 yards, which means he didn't try to make any risky throws.

It certainly adds another dimension. The Ravens don't need a dynamic passing game. They don't need a lot of game-breakers. They need to establish the run and then everything else will follow. The offense did just enough to give the defense a lead, and the Ravens are tough to beat in that situation.

They can play aggressive defense. They can alter their fronts. They can use a lot more stunts against both the run and the pass. They don't have to gamble to make plays like they did last week against Cleveland, when they got burned for two long passes that ended up being the difference in the game.

"Old-school football, that's what we're about," said Ray Lewis. "That's when we're at our best."

But Lewis acknowledges that the injuries and the lack of discipline are a concern. You can't replace a Todd Heap unless it's with a Tony Gonzalez or a Jeremy Shockey.

The Ravens' replacements are Terry Jones Jr. and Dan Wilcox, one who can block but can't catch and the other a youngster who might become good at both one day. As for Sanders, he is listed as questionable next week.

The Ravens would have been in better shape to survive Sanders' injury, but Billick cut Sapp Thursday after a heated debate involving the Ravens' coaching staff and front office personnel.

According to several Ravens officials, the consensus was to cut veteran cornerback Corey Fuller. But Billick chose to keep Fuller on the roster because of his close relationship with Sanders.

The Ravens instead chose Sapp and replaced him with special teams player Harold Morrow, who has an affiliation with specials teams coach Gary Zauner, a close friend of Billick. Sapp could have replaced safety Will Demps as a starter next season and Sanders next week. They cut a younger player with a bright future for two players who have none with the club.

It's all part of a team that needs to get a grip. Billick's decision to cut Sapp was highly political and as poor as some of the ones the Ravens made on the field yesterday. When it comes to playoff time and tight games, teams can't afford to lose control. You would figure the Ravens learned that last season, when an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty against offensive tackle Orlando Brown played a major part in the Ravens' loss to Tennessee in the first round of the playoffs.

Billick might need to add a little more discipline for this team. He is a players' coach, the guy with soft training camps and no curfews. Regardless of trouble, Billick protects his players.

But there is a fine line here. This is a team that has eight Pro Bowl players from last season. A few fines might be necessary.

"I'm not telling him how to coach, but every time a situation like this happens, he should stop and correct it," said Brown. "He should create situations in practice and address it. I learned my lesson last year, and you can't lose control of your emotions no matter what happens. It's too costly."

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