Ravens looking to improve passing game

OWINGS MILLS -- The Baltimore Ravens don't suffer from an identity crisis, or delusions of aerial grandeur. <P> A smash-mouth style spearheaded by NFL rushing leader Jamal Lewis defines their offensive profile. The bruising running back is on pace to surpass Eric Dickerson's single-season rushing mark of 2,105 yards.

Baltimore (3-2) is atop the AFC North and resembles a throwback to the leather-helmet era when the forward pass was an aberration. While rookie quarterback Kyle Boller learns on the job and receivers keep dropping crucial passes, a conservative passing game ranks last statistically in the NFL. The lack of balance is glaring.

"You've heard me say it a thousand times and I've been accused of it and held accountable for it, yeah, I'd throw the ball every snap, if I thought we could win," said Ravens coach Brian Billick, who was the offensive coordinator for the highest-scoring offense in league history with the Minnesota Vikings five years ago. "That's not who we are. That's not how we're going to win."

On 50 of 58 snaps in Sunday's 26-18 win over the Arizona Cardinals, Billick said, Arizona defensive coordinator Larry Marmie deployed eight or nine defenders at the line of scrimmage. Lewis still rushed for a game-high 131 yards on 21 carries.

Boller has the lowest quarterback rating in the league with a 48.9 mark with two touchdowns and six interceptions.

The Ravens are winning with Lewis representing 53.7 percent of their offensive output with 797 all-purpose yards, a league-high 742 on the ground. Yet, the lack of a vertical game is making the 5-foot-11, 240-pound runner's job more difficult. Until the Ravens force opposing defensive coordinators to respect the pass, this trend is unlikely to change.

"Sooner or later, it's going to have to pick up," Lewis said. "There are things we have to do outside. We have to be able to catch the ball more and take guys out of the box."

Boller completed 9 of his 18 passes for 75 yards with no turnovers. He was victimized by drops, including veteran Frank Sanders not hauling in an accurate throw in the end zone.

"I don't like the way we're playing," Sanders said. "I expect more and the coaches expect more from us. We're not getting it done outside. We've got to pick it up."

This was Boller's third game with under 100 passing yards. Still, Billick was complimentary of the first-round draft pick's progress even though Baltimore averages the least passing yards in the NFL with 97.0 yards per contest. "He had a good solid game," Billick said. "He was not loose with the ball. His demeanor, his approach, what he saw, what he didn't see, what he's aware of, he's getting better."

Meanwhile, the situation causes concern about the grind on Lewis' body, which has already undergone reconstructive surgery on both knees in recent years.

The Ravens did introduce more intermediate patterns and audibles for Boller, but his longest reception was 17 yards to tight end Terry Jones. Pro Bowl tight end Todd Heap leads the team with 17 receptions for 162 yards. "We are making progress, but we need to speed things up," receiver Travis Taylor said.

This is something of a Catch-22 for Baltimore. Run the football too much and Lewis could wear down. Pass too often and they'll be criticized and possibly derailed by mistakes in the passing game and face the possibility of Lewis' production decreasing.

Baltimore failed to convert on all four red-zone opportunities as Matt Stover kicked four field goals.

"We're not concerned as much about statistics as we are about getting better," quarterbacks and receivers coach David Shaw said. "With Jamal, there are only going to be so many throws, so guys have to take advantage.

"What goes unheralded is the receivers' excellent downfield blocking, but that's not what people notice. I have no concerns about work ethic. It's about execution."

Billick pointed out that Baltimore is averaging seven more yards and nearly two more points a game than last year. That's primarily because Lewis has four consecutive 100-yard games, a 6.5 average per carry for 148.4 yards a game. While Lewis is flourishing, the passing game is gasping for air. "Yeah, I'm disappointed with every drop, no more so than they are," Billick said. "There's probably a little frustration with the idea that, 'If I don't do something great with the ball, I may not see it again the rest of the game.' You fight through those frustrations."

Aaron Wilson writes for the Carroll County Times.

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