Ravens caught in downward spiral

OWINGS MILLS -- The harsh truth about the last-place Baltimore Ravens is illuminated with frequent reminders about their second-class NFL status in the standings, statistics and gloomy outlook. Following a 10-6 loss Sunday to the Chicago Bears, the Ravens (2-4) are in a freefall mainly because they average a league-worst 11.5 points.

The Ravens' once-fearsome running game is a shadow of its robust former self as former Pro Bowl runner Jamal Lewis has slumped to 27th in the league in rushing yards.

Lewis was stymied for 34 yards on 15 carries against Chicago with linebackers Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs taking turns chopping him down to the soggy ground.

Officials seem to love throwing flags at the mistake-prone Ravens, who have drawn 64 penalties to rank fifth in the NFL with an average of nearly 11 penalties per game.

Plus, the team is woeful away from Baltimore with six consecutive road losses dating back to last season for the longest streak in the league.

"The frustration, the angst, anger of the fans right now is matched only by the coaches and the players and the organization," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "It's very frustrating, very angering to not play better, to not do a couple of those things that you have to win in a close game."

The Ravens generated only 199 yards of total offense against the Bears while earning 100 yards of penalties.

No matter what the Ravens try to do offensively, it seems to backfire.

When they try to establish Lewis with a hard-nosed approach, defenses thrive against the predictable game plan and shut him down.

When offensive coordinator Jim Fassel calls for a few downfield passes, the Ravens can rarely go vertical.

That's because the pass protection is seldom there. And quarterback Anthony Wright often misses his read or puts receivers in dangerous situations by forcing the ball into traffic. Wright has been getting his targets hit hard, including tight end Todd Heap and fullback Alan Ricard against the Bears.

"We're not playing together as a team," Wright said. "That's the bottom line. The talent doesn't matter if you're not playing together as a team. We have to figure it out."

Tied with the Cleveland Browns for last place in the AFC North, the Ravens haven't been 2-4 in six years.

A lot of the problems can be ascribed to the offense's lack of consistency. There's little scoring punch, and defenses don't have reason to fear an anemic running game or a hit-or-miss passing game. The playbook hasn't become more imaginative under Fassel.

"You have got to have more scores in the red zone if you are going to be a good football team," Billick said. "We have to find that formula, find that guy or combination of guys and schemes to see if we can find a way to crack the end zone more."

The Ravens have scored just six touchdowns to go with kicker Matt Stover's nine field goals.

"In order for us to be a very good offense, we have to be consistent if we want to put more than six points on the board," said wide receiver Derrick Mason, who leads Baltimore with 37 catches. "We're averaging 10 points, and in this league that's not going to get you any wins.

"Forget everything else. How are we as an offense going to score some points? Six points isn't the norm in this league."

The Ravens play Monday night at the Pittsburgh Steelers to begin a five-game stretch against teams with a combined mark of 22-10.

"They are probably not taking us seriously, especially at this point of the season," Suggs said. "We'd better show up or it's going to be another long night."

It's already been a long season that appears to have drained the swagger from a team that used to thrive on out-hitting, out-talking and outrunning opponents.

"When you're in a hole, you can't think about being in a hole," linebacker Bart Scott said. "You can't look two steps ahead when you're 2-4. You just have to concentrate on being 3-4."
The Ravens' only two wins are against teams with losing records: Cleveland (2-4) and the New York Jets (2-4).

In Billick's estimation, the Ravens will need to finish at least 10-6 to earn a playoff berth.

"It's very clear-cut. For us, that means 8-2 the rest of the way," Billick said. "That is ambitious, to say the least.

"As long as those odds are and as uphill as that may seem for a 2-4 team, that's what you embrace right now as the potential. You use that as part of your motivation going forward.

In addition to being a long time contributor to RavensInsider, Aaron Wilson writes for the Carroll County Times in Westminster Maryland.

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