Ravens need balance on game day because the defense can't do it all

Pro Football

December 08, 2004|By JOHN EISENBERG

IN ONE SENSE, the Ravens' last-second loss to Cincinnati on Sunday could pass as a bump in the road. They can still make the AFC playoffs as a wild-card qualifier. They still have more going for them than many NFL teams.

But the loss was shattering in another sense, offering hard lessons that could spell the end of the team as it is currently balanced.

The need for a fundamental change in that area became evident as Carson Palmer and the Bengals' offense sailed down the field to the winning score, capping a comeback from 17 points behind with 17 1/2 minutes to play.

For the first time in years, it seemed almost certain that the Ravens' defense was going to yield with the game on the line. Many in the crowd could sense it. The defense had already yielded throughout the fourth quarter. Palmer had solved the Ravens' cornerstone unit. The ending was almost inevitable.

As the Bengals' winning field goal sailed through the uprights, it was clear the Ravens no longer could count on their defense to manufacture victories and make up for the team's chronic offensive shortcomings.

This was, and is, a team with a balance problem.

The defense, while still one of the league's best, isn't dominating enough to have the entire team depending on it. And the offense, as always, needs help.

Going forward, the Ravens are going to need their units to become more comparable. Carry similar loads.

With the days of guaranteed defensive lockdowns over, the offense has to pick up the slack.

That's not intended as a rip of the defense. It continues to play well, the late Cincinnati meltdown notwithstanding. Only four of the league's 31 other teams have allowed fewer points. Only seven have allowed fewer yards. That's a playoff-worthy performance.

But it's not enough because of the organization's expectations for the unit, which are, in a word, unrealistic. The Super Bowl defense was perfect. This one is human. But it's asked to be perfect to offset an offense that is asked simply not to blow games, as opposed to winning them.

That "profile" has become dated, with all due respect. Look how often the defense yields, especially in clutch situations. The Browns drove 54 yards with the game on the line on Nov. 7 before Ed Reed saved the day with an end zone interception. The Jets drove 52 yards to a tying field goal in the final seconds on Nov. 14 before the Ravens won in overtime. The Chiefs and Patriots had their way offensively over most of four quarters.

There's too much pressure on the proud unit that defines the Ravens. This isn't 2000. Ray Lewis is still a star, but he said earlier this season that "you can't compare me now to when I was 25." Nine teams are better against the run. The secondary has lapses.

It wouldn't matter as much if the offense were more potent. But the Ravens are last in the league in passing, as they were in 2003, and their 16 offensive touchdowns this season are tied (with Chicago) for the league low.

Ravens coach Brian Billick can say all he wants about the offense moving in the right direction. It isn't.

There's no need to panic in the short term with the Ravens over .500 this season and alive for a playoff berth, but the long range view is ominous. Two of the Ravens' AFC North rivals are set at quarterback for the next decade. Cincinnati has Palmer, a budding star. The Steelers have undefeated Ben Roethlisberger.

You can build teams around such players, as the Bengals and Steelers surely will. That leaves the Ravens in third as a long-range entity with Kyle Boller, whose career to date is anything but convincing.

The Ravens can still compete, and even prevail, if they come up with a better offense to match their capable defense.

But they could get left behind if they don't come up with that offense.

It's time to act. Someone needs to ask the hard questions. Is Boller the guy? What does it mean that wide receivers such as Kevin Johnson, Brandon Stokley and Marcus Robinson have more impact elsewhere? Is the play calling sound?

The Ravens are a strong organization, shrewd on draft day, smart salary cappers, solid in personnel maneuverings. Chances are good they'll address the problems. The offensive coaching, system and personnel all need tweaking, and in some cases, more than that.

Meanwhile, the defense likely will remain strong enough to keep the team competitive, no matter what happens.

But for the Ravens to achieve any real success, they can't depend on that anymore.

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