Red-zone offense leaves Billick at a loss

OWINGS MILLS -- The NFL is a copycat league, and coach Brian Billick has apparently seen enough of the Baltimore Ravens' lackluster red-zone offense. He's open to the idea of being a copycat coach. For the uninitiated, here's why Billick is studying more successful teams' schemes.

Midway through the season, the last-place Ravens (2-6) have the worst scoring offense in the league (12.1 points per game).

They are the only team in the NFL that has failed to score at least 20 points.

They have generated the seventh-fewest yards in the NFL.

Perhaps most damaging to the Ravens' cause is that they rank third from the bottom in red-zone scoring.

With only seven touchdowns in 22 trips inside opponents' 20-yard line, Baltimore has a 31.8 touchdown percentage. Only the Cleveland Browns (17.6 percent) and Arizona Cardinals (14.3 percent) rank below the Ravens.

Hence..

"I spend most of Fridays -- a fun day for me -- looking at what other teams are doing," Billick acknowledged. "Is there anything we can steal? Anything that can fit our personalities? Do we have any athletes like this? It's a constant battle on our part to try to find the right combination to create that productivity."

Traditionally, the most effective way to score deep in opponents' territory is to run the football over the goal line.

Because former Pro Bowl runner Jamal Lewis is mired in his worst season ever with 436 yards and a 3.0 average, the running game isn't much of a threat. Lewis has scored the Ravens' lone rushing touchdown.

With defenses no longer paying as much respect to Lewis near the goal line, they crowd the end zone with extra defensive backs and linebackers. That factor, along with quarterback Anthony Wright's inaccuracy (he was 2-for-8 inside the 20 in a 21-9 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals) has killed multiple drives because it's difficult to throw in a crowd. Baltimore was limited to no touchdowns on four trips inside the 20 against Cincinnati.

"We are trying everything we can in the red zone," Billick said. "We're running inside zones and outside zones, traps, outside-man toss sweeps. We are throwing it downfield. We are throwing it underneath.

"We are trying everything we can and know. The biggest thing in the red zone these days, and it's very vogue in the league, everybody takes four across zone and limits shots in the end zone."

Billick said several teams employ variations of Indianpolis coach Tony Dungy's Cover 2 scheme where the safeties cheat outside and the middle linebacker drops to the center of the end zone in a basic five-man coverage.

The potential remedy?

"For us, we have to run the ball better. We have to make them respect the ball in the red zone to where we could pop that in there," Billick said. "It's not always going to happen throwing the underneath stuff and the guy getting into the end zone."
The Ravens even resorted to a trick play Sunday where quarterback Kordell Stewart went out for a pass, but receiver Randy Hymes' overthrown spiral skipped off his outstretched hands.

"Maybe [reporters] can give me some insight and we can take that into consideration because we've got to find a way to get into the end zone somehow," receiver Derrick Mason said. "Throwing, running, trick plays, I don't know what the answer is. We've got to do something to change this.

"If you're a professional, you'll continue to work. If you're out there for a paycheck, you're going to quit. I don't expect anyone to throw in the towel."

Wright, who was replaced by starter Kyle Boller on Monday, noted that the last thing the coaching staff wants is a turnover. That can lead to a conservative approach that hasn't produced consistent scoring.

"It's difficult to get in and we don't want an interception," Wright said. "We have to be careful and make good decisions."

Overall, the Ravens have scored only 97 points while allowing 141.

They rank 26th in total yards (2,337), 27th in yards per play (4.4), 22nd in rushing (97.1), 24th in passing (195.0) and 17th in third-down efficiency (37.4).

All of which means that the Ravens aren't particularly proficient at any phase of the offensive game.

However, the red-zone issue is the most glaring deficiency on their midseason report card.

"It's frustrating to get down there and not be able to punch it in," tight end Todd Heap said. "Once you get down there, teams try to push you out. We've got to get better at this. We need to put a lot of emphasis that all 11 of us need to do our job."

NOTE: The Ravens made no announcement Tuesday regarding quarterback Kordell Stewart, who's expected to be officially released today to make room for running back Musa Smith on the active roster.

Smith, who broke his leg last season, has been on the physically unable to perform list. His agent, Jack Reale, said Smith hasn't been informed about any impending change in his status. Stewart's agent, David Dunn, didn't return telephone calls.

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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