Season premiere out of tune

QB McNair's four turnovers are the story of the loss, but the subplots are numerous

September 12, 2007|By Jamison Hensley | Jamison Hensley,SUN REPORTER

Moments after Monday night's 27-20 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals, Ravens coach Brian Billick tried to sum up the wild and unpredictable season opener.

"Turnovers were clearly the story of the game," he said.

Steve McNair threw one interception and fumbled three times, but he isn't the only one who dropped the ball Monday.

In a game filled with blame, Billick's suspect play-calling, the officials' debatable penalties, the offensive line's poor pass protection and the bad luck with injuries all contributed to the Ravens' fifth season-opening loss in six years.

McNair is the easiest target for criticism because his four turnovers led to 21 points for the Bengals.

It was a startling start for McNair considering that he totaled only 13 turnovers (12 interceptions and one lost fumble) in 16 games last season. He hasn't lost more than four fumbles in a season since 2003.

"We got to put this one behind us," McNair said after the game. "It's a long season. We can get better, and we're going to get better. I guarantee this offense will get better and we'll be the offense that I know we can be."

Physically, the Ravens don't know whether McNair, who has a groin injury, will play Sunday against the New York Jets.

Mentally, McNair has some mending to do after following up a poor effort in last season's playoff loss to the Indianapolis Colts with an equally poor outing Monday.

"Steve's been through this before," Billick said. "I'm not quite sure what you tell a guy. I'm open to suggestions. The guy has been at it a long time and has won a lot of football games. Sometimes, things happen."

Other factors that led to the Ravens' disappointing start were:

Billick's play-calling: From ESPN announcers to local message boards, Billick is taking heat for abandoning the run at critical times.

Facing five third downs of 3 yards or shorter before their final drive, the Ravens passed four times and never converted (three incompletions and one interception).

Late in the fourth quarter, the Ravens also had six chances from the Cincinnati 3-yard line or closer and passed four times. Running back Willis McGahee ran for 4 yards on first-and-goal from the 6 and never touched the ball again despite being 2 yards from the end zone.

The play selection was surprising because McGahee was having success (77 yards on 19 carries) and McNair was struggling with accuracy because of the groin injury.

Questionable officiating: Two pass interference penalties in the fourth quarter played a role in stopping an improbable comeback for the Ravens.

On the Bengals' two-point conversion attempt, Ravens safety Ed Reed was flagged for a penalty when it looked like wide receiver Chad Johnson initiated contact with Reed while going for the pass in the end zone. With a new chance, Cincinnati running back Rudi Johnson ran for the two points.

Then, it appeared as if the Ravens had tied the game at 27 late in the fourth quarter when tight end Todd Heap caught a 1-yard touchdown pass in the back of the end zone. But the score was negated when the officials called pass interference on Heap, who was trying to stop Bengals safety Dexter Jackson from grabbing his jersey.

The Ravens never got back into the end zone.

"I was stunned," Heap said of the penalty.

Offensive line struggles: McNair made costly mistakes, but it wasn't as if they were unforced errors.

Unlike last season, when he enjoyed solid pass protection, McNair was hit 10 times on 36 pass plays (28 percent).

On his second fumble (which led to Cincinnati's first touchdown), McNair had pressure coming from both sides. Bengals end Robert Geathers beat right tackle Adam Terry to get McNair to move up in the pocket, where he got hit from the other side by an unblocked Ahmad Brooks, who forced the turnover.

On McNair's third turnover, his pocket again collapsed from both edges. After McNair took a step to avoid the pressure, his arm was hit by Geathers, who beat rookie third-round pick Marshal Yanda. The ball fell into the hands of linebacker Landon Johnson, who ran 34 yards for the touchdown.

Injury bug: Trying to overcome six turnovers - one away from tying the team record - is a challenge.

Trying to do so with three star players injured certainly increases the level of difficulty.

From the first few series of the game, the Ravens were never at full strength, which hurt them in the long run.

McNair was not as effective after injuring his groin and left late in the fourth quarter. Linebacker Ray Lewis seemed to play with one arm after injuring his triceps on his second play. And offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden left early in the second quarter deciding he couldn't continue because of pain in his still-injured toe.

It was an admirable effort by the Ravens to stay in the game despite those injuries.

"We had a lot of guys step up today and showed some character," Heap said. "Obviously, the bottom line is wins and losses. I think this is something we can come together with. One thing I know about this team is we're going to stick together."

jamison.hensley@baltsun.com

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