Once a bust, offense rallies to earn trust

September 26, 2006|By JOHN EISENBERG

A bundle of tangible gains befell the Ravens when Matt Stover's game-winning kick split the uprights Sunday in Cleveland. They have a 3-0 record for the first time. They're tied with the Cincinnati Bengals atop the AFC North. They have a two- game lead over the Pittsburgh Steelers.

But the victory also delivered an intangible gain that eventually might be more important than all the others combined:

Maybe, just maybe, the defense is actually going to start trusting the offense after Sunday's winning rally from 11 points down.

"I enjoyed sitting there watching it," defensive tackle Kelly Gregg said yesterday. "That was great. We've got a lot of confidence in [the offense]."

It wasn't always so, to say the least. An undercurrent of distrust has effectively split the locker room for several years, with the defense believing it had to win too many games by itself because the offense couldn't shoulder a winning load, especially when the going got tough.

No one ever articulated it that plainly, but words weren't necessary. Everyone knew too many games had turned on interception runbacks or other plays in which the defense either filled the scoring void or set up field goals by Stover after the offense failed to capitalize on a turnover.

Frustration had set in long ago, with the defense rightfully believing that, unlike the offense, it had no margin for error. The Ravens hadn't overcome a double-digit deficit in almost two years before Sunday. They had lost nine straight games in which they trailed by at least 10 points. The lesson was obvious: Get ahead of the Ravens and you're in.

If you felt that familiar, sinking feeling when the Browns took a 14-3 lead in the second quarter Sunday, you surely weren't alone. Across Ravenstown (and maybe even on the visitors' sideline), old doubts rose.

"It's hard not to give in to that overwhelming force that says, `Oh boy, is this going to be one of those games again?' " Ravens coach Brian Billick said yesterday.

But the Ravens came back this time because their defense is superior even to last year's and didn't break after bending; because the team is competing better in general, for whatever reason; because highly paid players like Chris McAlister and Derrick Mason earned their salaries; but most importantly, because quarterback Steve McNair and the offense generated enough points.

To be fair, former starter Kyle Boller orchestrated his share of comebacks. In November 2004, he led the Ravens to an overtime win after they had trailed the New York Jets by two touchdowns at Giants Stadium - the team's last winning comeback from 10 points down before Sun- day's.

But more often than not, large deficits just became larger on Boller's and Anthony Wright's watches; the offense couldn't keep up, and the defense knew it.

How much did that damage team harmony? It might have been the reason Ray Lewis was suddenly so sullen last year. He was angry at the organization for failing to fix such a critical problem.

McNair's arrival instantly changed the team's outlook. Gone was the prevailing fear that the quarterback would always make the critical mistake to lose the game. Now, there was a sense that the quarterback would at least make enough plays to keep the game close and maybe win it.

McNair suddenly had to validate that perception Sunday when he was put in a tough spot for the first time as a Raven. He delivered a comeback and a victory. How did it make everyone feel?

"That we've got each other's backs in a way that maybe might not have happened before," Billick said. "Not that they didn't want to have each other's backs [before]. But they can do something about it consistently now, primarily [because of] who is at the quarterback position. It emboldens [the offense], gives them some real confidence. It's a big part of the chemistry we're beginning to develop."

Lewis and the defense have to believe things are changing at long last. They saw it for themselves Sunday. The comeback represented a huge step in the process of bringing together what had been a divided team.

Not that everyone should expect that all the time. Let's be realistic. Even with McNair in charge, the Ravens' offense isn't built to rally from far back. It remains more tortoise than hare, still depending on the running game and Stover's amazing leg. McNair, 33, doesn't have the arm to be a mad bomber anymore. Points and downfield progress will continue to come slowly.

But there was enough gas in the tank to fuel a comeback Sunday, and given the Ravens' recent history, it qualified as a minor miracle. Billick called it "huge" and "substantial" and a few other big things yesterday, and given the happiness evident in his newly unified locker room, it was hard to argue.

john.eisenberg@baltsun.com

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