Ravens' offensive breakthrough built on numbers

OWINGS MILLS - The Baltimore Ravens' offensive breakthrough extends beyond the obvious measures of increased scoring and yardage. <P> There has been a slight departure from a one-dimensional profile defined most of the season by the steady drumbeat of NFL rushing leader Jamal Lewis plunging into the line.

The forward pass has suddenly been incorporated. And an offense that remains last in the league in red-zone efficiency has scored a total of 88 points during two wins in a row headlined by 44-point outbursts.

Entering Sunday's key AFC North clash against the Cincinnati Bengals, the Ravens have scored only 14 touchdowns with 21 field goals for a 36.8 percent success rate in 38 possessions inside opponents' 20.

However, Baltimore (7-5) used shorter fields and the momentum of defensive turnovers to improve in this important category during last week's 44-6 win over the San Francisco 49ers. The Ravens scored touchdowns on three of their four possessions deep inside 49ers territory.

When asked if the red-zone issue has been alleviated, Ravens coach Brian Billick said: "Not really. And if it comes up again and we are ineffective this week, you guys will turn around and shove it up my butt next week, so it's one brush fire at a time."

Against the 49ers, Lewis scooted off right tackle from six yards out in the first quarter to open the scoring following linebacker Ed Hartwell's interception.

"We set the tempo right away," Lewis said. "The defense put us in good position, and we just punched the ball in there."

Later, cornerback Gary Baxter's interception was capitalized on by quarterback Anthony Wright zipping a waggle pass for a 6-yard score to tight end Terry Jones.

Capping the game's scoring late in the fourth quarter, rookie Musa Smith broke into the end zone on 4th-and-goal from the 2-yard line.

The only time Baltimore failed to score in the red zone came after return specialist Lamont Brightful's 75-yard kickoff return.

Lewis was stuffed for a one-yard loss. Then, Wright threw incomplete to Travis Taylor and a yard shy on a completion to Pro Bowl tight end Todd Heap as Baltimore settled for a 28-yard Matt Stover field goal.

With 101 penalties for 799 yards, the Ravens have been penalized 21 more times and 63 yards more than their opponents. The Oakland Raiders lead the NFL with 112 penalties.

Baltimore had been flagged 34 times in its three previous games before only being flagged four times against the 49ers.

"Again, it's like the red zone," Billick said. "Hopefully, that will bode well for us in the future, but we can't let our guard down. It's not like we all of a sudden have it whipped."

After committing a total of a dozen turnovers against St. Louis, Miami and Seattle, Baltimore only lost one fumble with a single interception against the 49ers to move up to 11th in the AFC with a minus-2 turnover ratio.

In Wright's three starts since taking over for injured rookie Kyle Boller, Baltimore has gone 2-1.

The former Dallas Cowboys starter has completed 48 of his 87 passes for 608 yards, six touchdowns, three interceptions and an 85.8 quarterback rating. Receiver Marcus Robinson has caught five of those touchdowns in the last two weeks.

"Each week I play, I get more and more comfortable," Wright said. "I've become more vocal trying to express my opinion to my teammates, show leadership and that I'm going to do what I can to take us forward."

The previous best season rating for a quarterback since Billick took over as coach in 1999 is the 81.3 mark Randall Cunningham achieved in two starts in 2001.

"I think Anthony has been very decisive," Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said. "He's going out and taking the job and running with it. You have to commend him for that and take your hat off to him."

The Ravens rank second overall in rushing with 158.2 yards per game and last in passing by averaging 143.4 yards.

Scoring 25 points a contest, Baltimore has 300 points for the season. That's 71 less than the club's single-season scoring mark established in 1996.

"We're doing some things better as far as passing the ball," said Heap, who leads the team with 48 receptions for 571 yards. "If we can get back to running the ball like we did at the beginning of the season, we'll be pretty potent."

One key offensive statistic besides the running game has worked in the Ravens' favor for the majority of the season. Baltimore leads the NFL in fourth-quarter scoring with 119 points, 10 more than the second-place St. Louis Rams. "How about that?" Billick exclaimed. "Hopefully, it shows focus. It shows that when you have to you can get the job done."

Aaron Wilson writes for the Carroll County Times.

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