Bal­ti­more’s Bil­lick missed all signs of Ravens’ demise

De­spite great de­fense, Ravens not liv­ing up to ex­pec­ta­tions

The Covington News - - SPORTS - By David Ginsburg

BAL­TI­MORE — In the wake of Sun­day’s wretched 217 home loss to Cincin­nati, Bal­ti­more Ravens wide re­ceiver Mark Clay­ton re­called an­other strik­ingly sim­i­lar de­feat.

“That re­minded me of the Colts game,” Clay­ton said, re­fer­ring to last sea­son’s 156 post­sea­son de­ba­cle against In­di­anapo­lis. Pey­ton Man­ning failed to pro­duce a touch­down against Bal­ti­more’s top-ranked de­fense, but Ravens quar­ter­back Steve McNair threw two in­ter­cep­tions and man­aged only to set up Matt Stover for a cou­ple of field goals.

When it came time to an­a­lyze the 2006 sea­son, coach Brian Bil­lick and the team’s hi­er­ar­chy dis­missed that game. Af­ter all, they rea­soned, we scored plenty dur­ing the reg­u­lar sea­son and hey, the Colts were so good they ended up win­ning the Su­per Bowl.

So, in as­sess­ing the Ravens’ prospects for 2007, Bil­lick touted a 13-3 team with 20 of 22 starters back to fin­ish what they started.

“I don’t know that there’s that one sin­gu­lar is­sue that we don’t feel good about across the board,” Bil­lick said in July. “It’s hard not to be op­ti­mistic.”

Turns out this edi­tion of the Ravens (4-5) is far more com­pa­ra­ble to the team that lost to In­di­anapo­lis than the one that av­er­aged 22 points dur­ing the reg­u­lar sea­son.

The de­fense, as usual, has been out­stand­ing. De­spite be­ing com­pro­mised by the loss of free agent Adal­ius Thomas and in­juries to Trevor Pryce, Chris McAlis­ter and Sa­mari Rolle, Bal­ti­more ranks fifth in the NFL and four times has held the op­po­si­tion to one touch­down or fewer.

Clay­ton was re­minded of the Colts game be­cause Bal­ti­more’s de­fense kept Cincin­nati out of the end zone, and still the Ravens lost. Therein lies the rea­son the Ravens al­most cer­tainly won’t be play­ing foot­ball in Jan­uary.

McNair de­serves much of the blame — he has 11 turnovers and only two touch­down passes — but he’s also had the mis­for­tune of work­ing within a sys­tem en­tirely de­void of imag­i­na­tion. Bal­ti­more’s of­fense has scored 10 touch­downs this sea­son, only two in the last two games. The Ravens’ av­er­age of 15.3 points per game is bet­ter than only Kansas City, St. Louis, At­lanta and San Fran­cisco, which are a col­lec­tive 10-26.

Nearly half of Bal­ti­more’s 138 points have been pro­vided by Stover, by far the team’s most po­tent of­fen­sive threat.

When the Ravens were strug­gling to score last sea­son, Bil­lick fired of­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor Jim Fas­sel and took over the play-call­ing. In Bil­lick’s first game in the dual role, Bal­ti­more amassed 16 first downs be­fore half­time in a 35-22 rout of New Or­leans.

That vic­tory started Bal­ti­more on a 9-1 run that ended with the loss to In­di­anapo­lis. Dur­ing the off­sea­son, Bil­lick pro­moted Rick Neuheisel to of­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor but in­sisted on keep­ing the play-call­ing du­ties.

The long passes, re­verses, draw plays and screen passes that worked so well last year ap­par­ently are no longer part of the game plan. Run­ning back Wil­lis McGa­hee has been bet­ter than ad­e­quate as the suc­ces­sor to Ja­mal Lewis, but Bil­lick keeps call­ing for short passes when a hand­off would be far more ef­fi­cient.

That ten­dency was openly ques­tioned by Ravens line­backer Ray Lewis af­ter Bil­lick or­dered three con­sec­u­tive passes when Bal­ti­more needed 1 yard to ex­tend a drive in the wan­ing mo­ments of a 19-14 loss to Buf­falo.

The Ravens had a bye af­ter that game, then re­turned to get ham­mered by Pitts­burgh 38-7 on Mon­day night. That was pre­cur­sor to an even big­ger em­bar­rass­ment: a loss at home to the Ben­gals, who came in 26 with the 31st-ranked de­fense.

The fans jeered the Ravens when they came off the field at half­time, and by game’s end the sta­dium was nearly empty. Those who re­mained booed some more.

It’s quite pos­si­ble the 34year-old McNair is too old to be ef­fec­tive. Some sug­gest it’s time for Bil­lick to go, even though he won a Su­per Bowl in 2001 and is signed through 2010. Those are the big top­ics of dis­cus­sion around Bal­ti­more th­ese days, not po­ten­tial play­off matchups.

Bil­lick got the job in 1999 be­cause of his abil­ity to run an of­fense. Ex­cept for last sea­son’s 10-game run, the Ravens have won solely on the abil­ity of the de­fense dur­ing his ten­ure.

Bil­lick soon may have to ad­here to a do-it-or-else sug­ges­tion from owner Steve Bis­ciotti to have some­one else to call the plays. Bil­lick, in turn, might want to ask for a new quar­ter­back.

The Ravens got McNair be­cause Kyle Boller just wasn’t good enough. McNair, a for­mer NFL co-MVP, was sup­posed to make Bal­ti­more’s of­fense as good as the de­fense. Now, iron­i­cally, the fans are clam­or­ing for Boller. Or even third-stringer Troy Smith.

Clearly, Bal­ti­more needs to ad­dress its of­fense be­fore the de­fense gets too old. Lewis, Pryce, McAlis­ter, Rolle and de­fen­sive tackle Kelly Gregg are all in their 30s.

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