Ravens' passing game striking out through 4 games

OWINGS MILLS – Beyond the suitcases common for any football team granted a brief vacation, the Baltimore Ravens' personal inventory contains a few additional items.

OWINGS MILLS – Beyond the suitcases common for any football team granted a brief vacation, the Baltimore Ravens' personal inventory contains a few additional items.

Smash-mouth running game led by Jamal Lewis, the NFL leader and single-game record-holder? Check.

Stingy defense headlined by perennial All-Pro linebacker Ray Lewis? Check.

Vertically-inclined passing game that features the athleticism and strong right arm of rookie quarterback Kyle Boller?

It's not here, at least not yet.

Although the Ravens' shortcomings entering this bye week extend past a passing offense that ranks last in the league as a first-round draft pick learns on the job, it remains a major factor in determining their long-term viability as a playoff contender.

Baltimore (2-2) is tied with the Pittsburgh Steelers for the AFC North lead following a 17-10 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs.

The loss to the Chiefs was marked by the Ravens' critical breakdowns on special teams, penalties that negated two touchdowns and Boller's season-high three interceptions and season-low 33.0 quarterback rating.

"It's hard, very frustrating," Boller said. "There were a couple of balls I would like back. I'm going to make sure I don't force them in there next time.

"I've got to use this as a learning experience. We have to make sure we remember this feeling and make sure we don't do the same things."

Through four games, the 22-year-old Boller has the lowest quarterback rating (46.0) in football and has completed 56 of his 107 passes for 468 yards, two touchdowns and six interceptions.

He has been sacked nine times. Baltimore averages only 4.4 yards per passing attempt.

Although one of the chief criteria for Boller is avoiding the repetition of mistakes, some of his breakdowns are similar, acknowledged Ravens coach Brian Billick.

"You'd have to point out the repetitive mistakes to me," Billick said. "Not that he hasn't made similar mistakes to a certain degree.

"I'm not going to justify them by any stretch of imagination, but each were different throws, different circumstances, again trying to manufacture something down the field."

Against the Chiefs, Boller's first interception was picked off in the first quarter by safety Greg Wesley helping out when Boller lofted it to Pro Bowl tight end Todd Heap.

"The first one, the free safety made a great play," Billick said. "He is not forcing the ball in, which is a great sign."

The second interception came when cornerback Dexter McCleon intercepted Boller in the end zone in the fourth quarter when Boller locked in on running back Chester Taylor instead of throwing the football away.

"The one throw Kyle probably would pull back and doesn't need to throw is the one to Chester," Billick said. "Given the alignment they had, he needed to throw the ball away."

Boller's final interception came seconds after skinning his elbow by the Chiefs' bench when a clearly-tired Heap lost his footing and McCleon capitalized to put the contest away.

"The very last throw was a desperation throw to try to get it down the field," Billick said. "Todd stumbled going up for the ball.

"Their guy made a great play. It was unfortunate."

Ideally, Billick said, the offensive profile will include roughly 30 to 35 running plays with 26 passes and 18 completions.

"We're three throws away from that," Billick said. "Partly because of [Boller], partly because of the receivers."

The dilemma that is the Ravens' one-dimensional offense offers several puzzling challenges to the players and coaching staff.

How much is too much with Lewis considering he's constantly presented with opposing defensive coordinators crowding the line of scrimmage with extra defenders?

With a league-high 611 yards with five touchdowns on 94 carries, Lewis is actually on pace for a single-season league record 2,444 rushing yards. Establishing Taylor, fullback Alan Ricard and, eventually, rookie runner Musa Smith, has to be part of the equation, Billick said.

"The day of the 460-carry back may have gone the way of the whales," Billick said. "That's tough on a back, the longevity of the back. So, 350 to 400 is what you shoot for.

"You do the math. In order to keep Jamal fresh for the year, then Chester has to have an increased role of five to six snaps a game."

Can the Ravens develop some other targets whose names aren't Todd Heap?

Often, Heap is split out wide with former first-round pick Travis Taylor the only other receiver in the game as Baltimore keeps tight end Terry Jones in to block with Lewis and Ricard lined up in an I-formation.

Receivers have corralled only 19 of Boller's 56 completions as Heap leads the team with 16 receptions for 160 yards and a touchdown followed by Taylor's 11 catches for 90 yards, or 270 feet, with just one score. Taylor ranks 70th in the NFL in receiving yardage.

Boller hasn't exactly been inundated with targets to throw to.

Veterans Frank Sanders and Marcus Robinson, former Pro Bowl alternates, have combined for just seven catches and 88 yards with no touchdowns.

"I'm just trying to give encouragement to him," Sanders said of his advice to Boller. "Whoever makes mistakes, people stand up in the meeting and say, ‘I blew it.'

"We just tell him it's a long season and there are still plays to be made."

Aaron Wilson writes for the Carroll County Times.

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