Chargers' caution gave Ravens green light

October 03, 2006|By JOHN EISENBERG

The next time you watch a replay of Sunday's game-winning touchdown pass for the Ravens - you'll see it, you'll see it - take your eye off the ball and check out what happens at the line of scrimmage. Check out the San Diego Chargers rushing just three men.

That's right, after hounding and pounding Ravens quarterback Steve McNair for more than 59 minutes, the Chargers suddenly took their foot off the gas pedal with the game on the line. They let McNair have all the time he needed, and he beat them.

That's a perfect metaphor for the entire game. The Chargers scored first, led almost all day and had several chances to put the Ravens away; they gained more yards, controlled the ball longer and, let's face it, often appeared to be the better team. But they eased up when it mattered most, played conservatively instead of aggressively, and it cost them.

The unbeaten Ravens' 16-13 victory is rightfully being portrayed here as a heroic, come-from-behind effort, but in San Diego, they're lamenting wasted opportunities and the Chargers' tentativeness with the game on the line - a recurring theme during the five years Marty Schottenheimer has coached the team.

Schottenheimer, 63, is a longtime NFL coach with a .601 career winning percentage in regular-season games (as opposed to a 5-12 playoff record). Fairly or not, he is known for coaching winning teams that play it a little too straight to be great. A San Diego Union-Tribune columnist wrote yesterday that Schottenheimer plays it so close to the vest sometimes he could be mistaken for a watch fob.

Sunday's game offered a textbook case. The Chargers took charge early, led by six points at halftime, and with their defense in control, had several chances to extend their lead and likely knock out the Ravens. But they went conservative.

On third-and-six at the Ravens' 24 in the third quarter, they ran for 2 yards instead of passing and came away with no points when Nate Kaeding missed a 40-yard field-goal attempt.

Midway through the fourth quarter, still up six, they started a series at the Ravens' 25 after an interception, but ran twice even after a clipping penalty set them back 15 yards, threw an incompletion on third down and came away with no points again when Mike Scifres fumbled the hold on a field-goal attempt.

In all, Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers attempted just four passes in the second half until the team's no-hope possession in the final seconds. And that was after he had completed nine of 14 passes in the first half.

Oh, the Ravens blew their share of scoring chances, too; Daniel Wilcox fumbled on the San Diego 1-yard line, and Derrick Mason dropped a sure touchdown. But those were physical mistakes, as opposed to, in the Chargers' case, the result of dubious strategy.

In Schottenheimer's defense, the Chargers' LaDainian Tomlinson ran the ball fairly well all day, and Rivers seemed to fade as the game wore on; he overthrew a possible touchdown with seven minutes left.

But don't think for a second that the Ravens weren't thrilled to see him passing less and less as the Chargers essentially just tried to hold on.

"I'm glad [Schottenheimer] stuck to his game plan because that Rivers kid could play," Ravens linebacker Bart Scott told The Sun's Mike Preston.

The Chargers almost pulled it off. They still led by four when McNair started the winning drive at the Ravens' 40 with 3:12 left. The Chargers needed just one stop, and the Ravens hadn't scored since the first quarter.

The Chargers rushed McNair hard as the drive started, but they backed off when the Ravens moved into scoring territory. On the winning play, just three guys took aim at McNair as linebacker Shawne Merriman dropped into pass coverage.

Ravens coach Brian Billick declined to criticize the Chargers' strategy yesterday. He said both the "passive" and "aggressive" defensive approaches (Billick's descriptions) leave openings that can be exploited, and that he "would go sixes on that," meaning six one way and a half-dozen the other as far as which he preferred in that situation.

But the Chargers' passiveness was a critical component of the winning play. The lack of pressure was a gift to McNair. According to STATS, Inc., he has completed seven of eight passes this season when opponents rush three men. Otherwise, he is barely completing 50 percent of his attempts.

The lack of pressure gave him all the time he needed to find Heap, who wasn't his first option. Symbolically, Merriman was one of the defenders Heap plowed through on the way to the end zone.

"You have to give [the Ravens] credit. They were more aggressive," Tomlinson told the Union-Tribune.

And the Chargers got what they deserved for easing up on the pedal before the race was over.

john.eisenberg@baltsun.com

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