Amid chaos, Billick needs to assert control

On the Ravens

Commentary

September 20, 2005|By MIKE PRESTON

NASHVILLE, TENN. -- Despite a rough start, Ravens coach Brian Billick can't panic. This is a period in the season, and possibly his career, where he has to be careful in his decisions, and choose a message that the team hasn't heard before.

It's a crucial time for Billick because he lost control of this team last year, and they're off to an 0-2 start. It's not so much the losses that are disturbing, but the way the Ravens have lost, especially Sunday against Tennessee.

There were numerous penalties, botched defensive assignments, dropped passes, poor special teams play and an atrocious offensive-line performance. There was no discipline and even less intensity. Good teams respond after a loss, the Ravens turned in a much worse effort Sunday.

Now, Billick has two weeks to find a way to reconnect with this team and jump-start the Ravens before they play the New York Jets at M&T Bank Stadium. It will be interesting because Billick is in his seventh season, a crossroad period for coaches who may have stayed in one city too long.

The worst thing he could do is come with a fire and brimstone approach. That's the wrong message. It's contrary to his style, which would indicate weakness and a lack of confidence.

Billick has to at least pretend that he is in control, and all changes have to be subtle. There's enough veteran leadership he can count on, players such as Ray Lewis, Jonathan Ogden, Peter Boulware, Samari Rolle, Derrick Mason and Todd Heap.

They've been on struggling teams before. Some even went through the five-game touchdown drought in 2000 or the salary cap-stripped team in 2002-03. At least, there is a support system in place.

But Billick has to make some subtle changes with his offense. It's time to burn the blueprint from the 2000 Super Bowl season when the Ravens had one of the biggest offensive lines in the league.

This group is still big, but they've gotten older. Four of the starting five are over 30, and they can't move. Billick has to get rookies Jason Brown, a center/guard, and offensive tackle Adam Terry more repetitions in practice. Other than left tackle Jonathan Ogden, the Ravens' offensive line has been pathetic.

Somewhere down the line, if this group continues to perform so poorly, it's better to play with the unknown than to keep playing with proven failure. Terry was taken in the second round and Brown in the fourth, so why not give them opportunities?

The Ravens need to reinsert fullback Alan Ricard. He mysteriously disappeared from the starting lineup during training camp despite being one of the best blockers in the league. How can a team built to play power football not have a bodyguard for running backs Jamal Lewis and Chester Taylor? How can they not play Ricard with Lewis running behind him for thousands of yards in the past?

Fullbacks are nothing more than an extension of offensive linemen. Instead of keeping tight end Todd Heap in to pass-block, they use Ricard in that capacity and send Heap out for passes. It makes so much sense, and it's well within the scheme just like incorporating more rollouts and sprint-outs to get more time for Wright, Kyle Boller or any other poor chap who wants to play quarterback.

And the Ravens should either demote or cut receiver Clarence Moore and replace him with either Randy Hymes or rookie Mark Clayton. Dropped passes are now unforgivable. Sending Moore to the bench might send a message to a team that is seldom threatened with job security.

Maybe it's time to rev up the pressure just a little.

Defensively, the Ravens need some tweaking. Forget about this defense being dominant. Those days are gone, leaving in 2003 when linebacker Ray Lewis' skills started to decline. The Ravens are devoid of defensive playmakers. Lewis doesn't make many anymore, and opposing teams stay away from safety Ed Reed.

The Ravens have two good cornerbacks in Chris McAlister and Rolle, but teams have been patient attacking the Ravens in the middle of the field with short to intermediate passes. If the Ravens had a consistent pass rush, the defense would be better, but sacks have been a missing ingredient.

Somehow, Billick has to find answers to a lot of problems. On paper, this team was picked by a lot of experts and NFL coaches to challenge for a Super Bowl title.

The season is still young, 14 games remain. But the Ravens are going into survival mode. That's not a bad thing. That's when Billick is at his best. He has trouble coaching teams that are favorites but relishes the underdog role.

Right now, the Ravens can't worry about being contenders. They need to win a game, any game. If the team comes out flat at home against the Jets in two weeks, then the Ravens will have problems.

And Billick will have an even bigger one.

mike.preston@baltsun.com

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