Ravens need to call audible to jump-start offense

ON THE RAVENS

Ravens Weekend

October 12, 2007|By MIKE PRESTON

During the offseason, the Ravens' public relations machine was in full swing. Willis McGahee was the dynamic, versatile running back they needed. Wide receiver Demetrius Williams had potential to be the deep threat. There were going to be more explosive plays.

Yet, as the Ravens prepare to play the St. Louis Rams on Sunday, the things that really need to be blown up are the playbook and the play-calling.

No one expected to see a pass-happy offense that would remind people of Don Coryell's San Diego Chargers of the early 1980s, but we didn't want the old Ravens again, either.

Wasn't quarterback Steve McNair supposed to be much improved in his second year with the Ravens? Where is this high-powered passing game when the Ravens go with Williams, Mark Clayton, Derrick Mason and Todd Heap? Where is offensive coordinator Rick Neuheisel?

Barring some major shift in philosophy, this was a con job - and it's not the first time.

We've heard it year after year, in fact, for the previous eight seasons. You might have believed it more this year because of the way the Ravens ended last season, with a 15-6 playoff loss at home to the Indianapolis Colts.

The Ravens couldn't score a touchdown, despite having two weeks to prepare.

So, you figured the Ravens would go out and beef up the offense in the offseason. With Neuheisel as the new offensive coordinator, there would be a couple of new wrinkles because he was well respected in college circles as a good offensive mind.

But instead, the offense is a dud. If you want to take a nap Sunday afternoons, watch a Ravens game.

That stinker played last week in San Francisco was the worst offensive performance in the Ravens' short history.

Forget that No. 11 ranking in offense, because it's misleading. The Ravens have gained a lot of yards against the Cincinnati Bengals (30th-ranked defense), Cleveland Browns (32nd), 49ers (21st), New York Jets (28th) and Arizona Cardinals (14th).

Even worse, they had trouble scoring against some of those teams. The Ravens have scored five offensive touchdowns in their past seven games, dating to last season.

Doesn't that sound familiar? Even with new quarterbacks, coordinators, receivers, linemen and running backs, the Ravens are back to the same ugly offense they've had since 1999.

It was supposed to change, and still can, but coach Brian Billick has to check his ego at the door. First, the Ravens have to find a running game.

They have McGahee, but they have to stop treating him as if he is fragile. Just give him the ball 25 to 27 times a game. McGahee is not as physically imposing as Jamal Lewis, but he is a tough guy, and this young offensive line needs to gets tougher, especially in the red zone.

Teams that can run and stop the run late in the season usually succeed in the postseason.

The Ravens also need to get Williams more involved in the passing game. Let McNair take two or three shots downfield to him a game. Williams has great speed and leaping ability. There is no reason he shouldn't be running deeper routes, because it would help loosen up the defense.

Right now, the Ravens' passing game is so simplistic. Please, no more 1-yard slant patterns, and no more 5-yard passes on third-and-eight. Mason might have more yards going backward after catches than going forward.

Last year proved the Ravens could win a lot of games with that strategy, but not in big games against good teams. And certainly not in a conference with quarterbacks such as Indianapolis' Peyton Manning and the New England Patriots' Tom Brady.

There is some concern about McNair's health and arm strength, but he should be able to throw 12- to 15-yard passes well consistently. There has been much talk about replacing McNair with Kyle Boller, but that would be a big mistake at this point.

McNair is a team leader. The Ravens are 15-5 with him as the starter in the regular season, and his experience is a great asset, especially with a young offensive line. Plus, after watching Boller fill in for McNair this season, it seems as if the Ravens are trying to get him to play "Billick Ball," or within the short passing scheme, as well.

That's where Neuheisel comes in. He probably has some input with the game plan, but it is apparent that this new, ho-hum offense of Billick's is the same as the old, ho-hum offense of Billick's. Neuheisel needs to learn to say no as much as he says yes to Billick. This team needs some new ideas and a coordinator who has a feel for the game.

Because right now, they are wasting a lot of talent on offense. As a group, the Ravens' receivers are just as good as almost any in the league, but the wide receivers are averaging only 9.6 yards a catch.

With runners such as McGahee and backup Musa Smith, there is no way McNair should be throwing more than 40 times a game like he has the past two weeks. With McGahee and Smith and a great defense, the Ravens should easily hold 10- and 14-point leads in the second half simply by pounding the football.

But that's not the story here. It's about a head coach who came to Baltimore with the reputation of being one of the best offensive minds in the NFL. But through the years, we have learned to no longer mention the words Billick and genius in the same sentence.

But at the least he could keep the promises his organization made during the offseason. The Ravens swore they were going to do some things to open up this offense, and we haven't seen them.

On Sunday, we'll be watching and waiting. And, let's hope, not snoring again.

mike.preston@baltsun.com

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