When defense is only bright spot, hopes of scoring are dim

Colts 24, Ravens 7

Ravens Gameday

September 12, 2005|By DAVID STEELE

AS REQUESTED by the head coach and his players, the Ravens fans didn't boo Kyle Boller every time the offense sputtered and stumbled last night, which was an incredible act of collective restraint considering what happened from the first quarter against the Indianapolis Colts until late in the third on the way to an ugly 17-0 deficit.

And to their everlasting credit, they didn't roar with delight when Boller was plowed over by Larry Tripplett, had his right lower leg bent back gruesomely and stayed down, writhing in pain. In fact, as he was helped off the field and into the locker room, several fans in the front row behind the home bench at M&T Bank Stadium applauded him encouragingly and reached out to pat him on the back.

Thoughtful gestures, all. None of them, though, drowned out the cheer that went up when Anthony Wright raced into the huddle - back inside the Ravens' 10-yard line, it must be noted - or the ones that followed as Wright led the Ravens into Colts territory in the next two-plus minutes.

Thus, at the end of the third quarter of the first game of the season, a game that had been turning more wretched by the snap, the fans were as pumped up as they'd been all night - even though the score was still 17-0.

Desperation and despair will do that to you. And the desperation had gotten pretty thick by the time Boller went down. Even the few rays of light generated by a respectable first-quarter performance, set up by a satisfying return to form by Jamal Lewis, had been enveloped by gloom by the second quarter, an abomination if there ever was one.

The best hope for the Ravens to get on the scoreboard in the first three quarters? Big surprise - the defense. In the final seconds of the first half, cornerback Chris McAlister had a Peyton Manning pass in his hands at the opposite goal line, but the ball ricocheted off McAlister's palms. The fans let out a gasp of disappointment that reflected a sense that there weren't going to be many better opportunities the rest of the way.

By then, the Ravens' defense had proven they were not only great, but special - and the offense was showing signs that, for the umpteenth straight season, that special unit would be wasted, not unlike the Colts' offense had been wasted in recent years because of an inferior defense.

Who could tell, though, whether the Colts' defense had been upgraded enough to legitimize the talk about a long-awaited Super Bowl? The Ravens' offense was absolutely brutal in the first half, and up until the moment Boller went down, well into the second half.

Matt Stover even went belly-up, 0-for-3 on field-goal attempts.

The third miss came at the end of Wright's first action since the 2003 season, the end of his first inspiring drive. The brief glimmer of hope that had sped through the stands dissipated right about the time Stover's kick sailed wide.

By then, of course, it had become clear that the Ravens' defense not only had to be perfect, not only did it have to have the endurance of 11 Lance Armstrongs in the Alps, but it also had to double as the offense. The season was going to come down not to Derrick Mason's hands (or Clarence Moore's, who let him down again on a late-second-quarter drop), but to McAlister's and Ed Reed's and Ray Lewis'.

Naturally, that was too much to ask. They were almost perfect in the first half, starting with the Colts' first possession, when they stuffed Edgerrin James on fourth-and-less than a yard in Ravens' territory, and Ray Lewis and his guys stomped off the field waving their arms and pumping their fists.

The fact that, after McAlister's near-miss on the pass at the goal line, they held the Colts to a field goal, and a mere three points in the half, was only a tease. McAlister had been brilliant against the most dangerous cog (besides Manning) in the NFL's most dangerous offensive machine. Yet the Ravens hadn't scored themselves, and had managed one first down in the second quarter, thanks largely to their gaining zero yards on six carries and committing three offensive penalties.

Boller couldn't even remotely be blamed for that level of ineptitude. In fact, he wasn't even at fault on the Ravens' one turnover in the half; he was intercepted on the Ravens' first series, but only because of a great breakup by Nick Harper and a diving catch of a lucky bounce by Gary Brackett.

Understandably, where the defense bent in the first half, they began to break in the second. When the Colts finally got into the end zone, it was at McAlister's expense; this time, Harrison got that step on him, Manning put the ball right where his receiver could get it and his defender couldn't, and the Ravens suddenly faced a 10-point deficit that felt like 20.

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