Down before they count

ON THE RAVENS

August 29, 2006|By MIKE PRESTON

It's only preseason. Say it again. It's only preseason. Repeat it a few more times, and maybe that will ease the feeling that is gnawing at your stomach. You know, the one that says, "Oh no, the Ravens can't be that bad, again."

There's no time for panic because it's a long NFL season, but you've got to be concerned after the Ravens' 30-7 loss to the Minnesota Vikings on Friday night. It's too early to call the performance a meltdown, so let's say it was uninspiring. You can hold your nose for visual effects, too.

The real problem is that the Ravens looked a lot like the team that has been fading the past two seasons. In fact, they looked almost identical to the team that walked off the field at the end of the 2005 season after losing to the Cleveland Browns.

We don't want to admit it because we don't want it to happen again. But that's exactly what kept Ravens fans tossing in their sleep over the weekend. The 2006 Ravens look a lot like the 2005 Ravens. Missed blocks and tackles. Busted assignments. Illegal procedure penalties.

There is one consolation: It's only preseason. That's when teams are supposed to make stupid mistakes. It's better to get all the kinks out now than during the regular season. Here's something else that might make you feel better: The defending Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers are 0-3 in the preseason. And let's be honest, quarterback Steve McNair has been with the Ravens on a regular basis for about a month. The offense is expected to struggle early in the season.

Feel better now? Not really, because we've seen this act before. You can't get certain pictures out of your mind. Except for the opening drive of the preseason, the Ravens have had no cohesion on offense. They can't score points. Again. They can't protect the quarterback. Again. The running game is inconsistent, and if the Ravens can't run, they can't win.

At least there is no quarterback debate, except whether McNair can throw a pass accurately more than 12 yards. Short passes are a staple of the West Coast offense, but unless McNair can prove he can go downfield, more teams are going to take that away and smother the Ravens' passing game just as Minnesota did.

Backup Kyle Boller can't do any better. He is inaccurate on short passes, but at least can throw far enough downfield for some jump balls. TV commentators said Friday night that the Ravens were being vanilla on offense because they didn't want to show the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, their opponent in the opener, too much.

Now, that's funny.

Because no matter what you run, you still have to be able to block. For years now, we've urged Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome and coach Brian Billick to either draft or sign some good offensive linemen. And what we've gotten are a center and right side of the offensive line that continue to struggle. It can be McNair, Boller or John Elway behind center, but without a good offensive line, the Ravens will continue to falter. As a group, the unit has improved from a year ago, but not to the point where the Ravens can win consistently.

But again, haven't we heard this before? Wasn't Friday night a replay of so many Ravens games in the past in which the defense played well enough to win, but also couldn't get off the field because the offense couldn't sustain a drive? A troubling sign is that this year's defense may not be as good as in the past. The defensive line is suspect. End Trevor Pryce finally made some plays against the Vikings and fellow end Terrell Suggs was strong, but rookie tackle and first-round draft pick Haloti Ngata was slow and ineffective for the second straight week.

Outside linebackers Bart Scott and Adalius Thomas seem to be at their peaks, but middle linebacker Ray Lewis is no longer a dominant force. The Ravens are sound in the secondary with cornerbacks Chris McAlister and Samari Rolle and safety Ed Reed, but even they can't cover forever if the Ravens continue to fail to mount a pass rush.

Oops, there we go, with the flashbacks to last year again.

Regardless, we can't give up hope. It's way too early. The Ravens have a lot of things going for them. It's a veteran team that has enough poise to win. There's the new Billick, even though he reminds you of the old one when he runs his hands through his hair in frustration on the sideline. There is the new McAlister and new Lewis. There isn't a lot of griping going on even though running back Musa Smith, of all people, shouldn't be publicly criticizing the offensive line.

Reed got a new contract, and so did Jamal Lewis. The Ravens have added veterans like Pryce and defensive tackle Justin Bannan, and finally have a proven quarterback in McNair who has weapons in receivers Derrick Mason, Mark Clayton, Todd Heap and Lewis.

There's a lot of swagger still left, so let's give this season and this team time to gel. It's only preseason. It has to get better.

Right?

mike.preston@baltsun.com

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