Looking to light it up

Ravens' offense hopes for spark in prime-time spotlight tonight

October 09, 2006|By Jamison Hensley | Jamison Hensley,Sun reporter

DENVER -- A national audience will be tuning in tonight to find out the identity of the undefeated Ravens.

The Ravens' offense would like to learn that answer, too.

In their first prime-time game of the season, the Ravens take a 4-0 record and a far-from-perfect offense to face the stingy Denver Broncos (2-1) at Invesco Field at Mile High.

Beyond two thrilling game-winning drives, the Ravens' attack has been as boring as it can be. How many times will Jamal Lewis keep running up to the line of scrimmage and slamming into the backs of his ineffective offensive linemen? How many times will Steve McNair keep throwing the ball over his receivers or into the dirt?

An offense that once had high expectations has fallen near the bottom of the NFL rankings. Before yesterday's games, the Ravens were the fifth-worst offense in the league.

"We have no identity," receiver Derrick Mason said of the Ravens, who are one game ahead of the Cincinnati Bengals in the AFC North. "We're still not playing the type of offense anybody envisioned us playing, especially when you add somebody like Steve. I'll take the 4-0, but it comes to a point where, as an offense, you have to start putting points on the board. We've underachieved as an offense."

Finding themselves as an offense won't come easy against Denver. The Broncos have allowed just one touchdown in three games and have averaged 10.3 points allowed.

There's a growing sentiment inside the Ravens' locker room that the key to victory is to physically pound the ball against a Broncos defense that has a reputation of being fast but soft. Denver allowed 100-yard rushing games in the first two weeks of the season (the Kansas City Chiefs' Larry Johnson and St. Louis Rams' Steven Jackson).

But the Ravens have yet to establish a ground game this season despite playing against some of the weakest run defenses in the NFL, continuing a disturbing habit from last year. Lewis has cracked 100 yards only twice in 19 games, averaging 61.8 yards over that span.

When asked if the Ravens had thought about decreasing Lewis' carries and role in the offense, coach Brian Billick strongly defended the franchise's all-time leading rusher. The other options would be Mike Anderson, a 1,000-yard rusher for the Broncos last season, or Musa Smith, who was impressive during the preseason.

"Jamal is doing fine," Billick said. "It's a combination of how the games have gone and how we have to execute better for him. Jamal is running hard and he is focused. I cannot ask any more of him."

One theory about Lewis' struggles is that he has never recovered from being run into the ground during his 2,000-yard season in 2003. Since that season, Lewis has more games under 60 yards (15) than games over 100 yards (six).

"I think we'll be all right. It's a long season," said Lewis, who has received more than 20 carries just once this season. "The one thing I can say, a 2,000-yard rusher doesn't forget how to run the football."

The ragged running game is only part of a bigger problem. In the past two games, the Ravens have averaged 147.5 yards in the first three quarters before producing 125 yards in the fourth quarter alone.

The only reason the offense had the chance to save itself with late comebacks is because the defense has given up just three points in the second half this season.

"Tune in early this time," McNair said. "We're going to try to get things started fast and keep it going. We don't want to wait until the last minute."

The sluggish starts have been the result of struggling in every aspect.

The running game has been ineffective. The passing game has been inefficient.

Before yesterday's games, the Ravens ranked 23rd in rushing yards and 27th in passing yards.

"I'm very confident that the offense will come around," Mason said. "But at this juncture of the season, I would have thought we would have been a better offense. If you just looked on paper, would you think this team even won a game?"

Other than the issue with their offense, the Ravens are dealing with some distractions for the first time this season.

Return specialist B.J. Sams, who will be playing tonight, was arrested on a charge of driving under the influence on Tuesday. That same day, left guard Edwin Mulitalo was having season-ending surgery for a torn triceps. What the Ravens lose in experience with Multialo, they gain in quickness and strength with Jason Brown.

One of three undefeated teams left in the NFL, the Ravens can show how well they handle adversity as well as the success of being the first Baltimore football team since 1977 to start 4-0.

"I've said it a million times: What we have done before this week has no bearing on this week," Billick said. "That's the mind-set you have to have. You can draw on some things and learn from it. But this week is about this week and you better keep that mind-set. This group is very good at that -- so far." jamison.hensley@baltsun.com

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