Third-and-one gamble fails to pass the test

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Ravens Weekend

September 14, 2007|By Jamison Hensley | Jamison Hensley,Sun Reporter

If the Ravens face another third-and-one situation Sunday, the fans at M&T Bank Stadium won't be the only ones calling for coach Brian Billick to run the ball.

The statistics say the Ravens should do it, too.

Based on 2006 numbers analyzed by the Pro Football Prospectus, running on third-and-one will convert 36 percent more often than passing.

When it's third or fourth down with 1 to 2 yards to go, running is successful 40 percent more often.

That's why the possibility of a long gain by throwing the ball is not worth the risk of an incompletion that can kill a drive.

Being unpredictable is sometimes the key to play-calling. But the Ravens were gambling too much at critical times in Monday's season-opening 27-20 loss at Cincinnati.

On five third downs of 3 yards or shorter (before their final drive), the Ravens threw the ball four times and never converted.

The most debatable pass came on a third-and-one with 9:43 remaining in the game and with the Ravens ahead 20-19. Steve McNair's throw sailed high, got tipped by intended receiver Derrick Mason and fell into the arms of the Bengals' Robert Geathers.

Two plays later, Cincinnati receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh caught a 7-yard touchdown pass and the Ravens lost all of their momentum.

That third-down call by Billick should have worked because Mason was wide-open 13 yards downfield.

But Billick knew passing was a risk because McNair was not himself that game. After injuring his groin in the first quarter, McNair continually threw the ball high.

The other option was the safe bet. Before the Ravens' final drive, running back Willis McGahee averaged 4.6 yards a carry and had been stopped for no gain just once on 15 carries.

That's not to say McGahee is the best short-yardage runner. Last season for the Buffalo Bills, he was 7-for-9 in converting third-and-one. The 77.8 percent success rate was tied for 20th in the NFL, which is almost in the bottom third of the league.

But giving the ball to McGahee made sense.

Even if McGahee couldn't have picked up that third down, the Ravens would have punted with a one-point lead and relied on their defense that had been shutting down the Bengals. The Ravens held the high-powered Cincinnati offense to 50 yards in the second half, an effort that was overshadowed by the struggles of their own offense.

Looking at the past year, it's hard to pick apart Billick on too many instances. Since he took over the play-calling, the Ravens are 9-2 and have seen an improvement in nearly every offensive category.

But on Monday night, Billick decided to gamble, and he paid the price.

jamison.hensley@baltsun.com

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