Ravens have changed, but their mission's same

Defensive lapses, passing could force new identity

Ravens Vs. Bengals

Pro Football

December 05, 2004|By Jamison Hensley | Jamison Hensley,SUN STAFF

While the Ravens' playoff path is clear-cut today, their identity remains clouded.

Sorting out their once- defined physical persona - whether it's re-establishing the run on offense or stopping it on defense - the Ravens (7-4) launch their December run to the postseason at M&T Bank Stadium against the Cincinnati Bengals (5-6).

By the Ravens' estimation, they must sweep their remaining three home games to gain a wild-card spot, which would be their fourth playoff berth in five years. A loss could push their season to the brink, so competitive is the AFC this year.

"This is a huge time for us," defensive end Tony Weaver said. "You've got to hold serve at home. We need that to get momentum and try to run the table, because in the AFC this year, that might be what we have to do."

If only the team's profile were that obvious.

The Ravens used to embrace a run-dominated offensive scheme, which usually paved the way for easy victories over Cincinnati. The Ravens have won seven of the past nine meetings, with their running attack averaging 180 yards.

These days, the Ravens can't produce even half that. They have failed to muster more than 76 yards rushing the past three games, a result of running back Jamal Lewis going down with a sprained ankle and Kyle Boller emerging as a quarterback.

The play-calling has reflected a change in philosophy as the Ravens threw 57 percent of the time in November. Last season, when they led the NFL in rushing, they ran the ball with that same frequency.

So, coming off a franchise-worst 124 yards of offense, do the Ravens consider themselves a running team, a passing one or something in between?

"If you want to win with this team, we have to run the ball well," left guard Edwin Mulitalo said. "But with Kyle playing better, maybe our identity is changing."

Maybe the Ravens should stick with the old identity against the Bengals.

Cincinnati has the league's third-worst run defense, allowing running backs to crack 100 yards rushing in seven of 11 games. In those games, the Bengals are 1-6.

"This is a game that they have to prove themselves," said Chester Taylor, who is replacing Lewis as the Ravens' starting running back.

The Bengals' defense isn't the only one out to prove itself.

The Ravens have given up 100-yard games to rushers in two of their past three. Before that, they had permitted running backs to reach that mark in nine of 72 games.

But their recent lapses have not caused any panic.

"We've given up three [100-yard rushers] out of 11 games this season. That's fine with me," inside linebacker Ed Hartwell said. "There's a lot of teams that can't do that. We have a great defense. We have great accountability toward each other. We're going to go out there and get the job done."

Now comes Cincinnati's Rudi Johnson, the AFC's fourth-leading rusher, who recorded 202 yards rushing last Sunday. The Bengals are expected to pound Johnson between the tackles to grind out yards and eat up the clock.

If the Bengals can outmuscle the Ravens, they could end one of the most dubious streaks in the NFL. Cincinnati has lost 42 in a row on the road to teams with winning records, dating to December 1990.

"This is personal," said Bengals coach Marvin Lewis, former Ravens defensive coordinator. "This a big game, and we need to win a big game.

"I think we kind of get to the brink and then we back up all the time. I would say that we're close and pushing over the hump, but we haven't done that yet. It's important that we do that. There is a little bit of fear of failure that creeps into our minds."

A defiant mind-set has been one of the trademarks of the Ravens under coach Brian Billick.

They often refuse to go into a downward spiral after tough losses, going 8-1 following defeats of 10-plus points since 2000. After getting routed, 24-3, in New England, they have to show they can rebound quickly again.

"When you lose and get embarrassed, you want to show that's not what you're about," offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden said. "It's resiliency. It's our nature. We're not going to lay down no matter what happens to us."

If they would lay down, the Ravens would get trampled in such a crowded AFC playoff race. The Ravens are tied with the Denver Broncos for the sixth and final playoff spot in the AFC, which boasts eight teams with six or more wins.

Billick has said the Ravens need to win their last three home games and split on the road (winning in Indianapolis or Pittsburgh) to reach 11 wins and clinch a playoff spot.

"Right now, it's not about record, it's about getting into the playoffs," linebacker Ray Lewis said. "Now is where you separate the men from the boys."

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