Reeling offense looking for a turnaround

OWINGS MILLS -- The triumphant image of quarterback Steve McNair celebrating in the end zone following a dramatic scramble during the opening drive of the preseason feels like a distant memory. The Baltimore Ravens aren't describing their starting offense's nine-drive touchdown drought since Aug. 11 as a full-blown crisis, and the dreaded panic button option hasn't been broached.

However, an offense with a history of underachievement isn't immune to self-doubt. Expressions of concern have been a recurring theme heading into tonight's preseason finale against the Washington Redskins at FedEx Field.

"We can't dismiss or forget about the way we played in Minnesota," Ravens coach Brian Billick said in reference to a sloppy 30-7 loss last week to the Vikings. "We can't slough it off and say, 'It's only preseason.' It was a miserable performance across the board. We should have played at a higher level in the third preseason game."

The offensive struggles, which include the starters scoring just 10 points in five quarters of work in the first three preseason contests, were magnified by generating only 12 yards in the first quarter last week at the Metrodome.

Plus, McNair threw his first interception and it was returned for a touchdown. The offensive line was bullied at the point of attack with stonewalled running back Musa Smith commenting honestly that there were no holes to run through.

"There are things that upset me and I've talked to our offense about it," said offensive coordinator Jim Fassel, noting how four offensive turnovers led to 17 Vikings points. "I didn't think we played crisp. I didn't think we played smart.

"That stuff can't happen. I'm not making excuses for it, don't get me wrong. Right now, we've got a lot of work to do."

Although the Ravens acquired McNair – a former NFL Co-MVP – to headline their offense, they haven't forgotten about last year. The Ravens finished 25th in the league in scoring (16.6 points per contest) and tied for 28th in red-zone scoring percentage with just 16 touchdowns on 42 trips inside opponents' 20-yard line.

Against the Vikings, the Ravens didn't even traverse into that territory.

McNair was sacked twice and pressured often.

"This league is not about sitting back there and feeling comfortable," McNair said. "You're going to get some hits here and there. We had some breakdowns not only in protection, but in routes and reads.
"We know that if we go out and perform like we did in the past, it's going to be a long year. We've got to get back to the fast-moving, physical pace we had been playing."

The Ravens have moved the football more regularly than in the past, but mustered only 86 yards in the first half against Minnesota.

"Obviously we're not where we want to be, but we've seen what we're capable of and we know we can get back to that," tight end Todd Heap said. "We can't go into the season with any doubts. You definitely want to go into the regular season with confidence and feel like you're clicking and in a groove, and that's what we're trying to do against the Redskins."

McNair has completed 77.5 percent of his passes, going 31 for 40, but has just one completion longer than 20 yards and that came on a screen pass Smith turned into a 36-yard jaunt against the Philadelphia Eagles.

"We're just working on the intermediate game right now," Fassel said. "We want to raise the completion percentage and work on certain passes. He's getting more comfortable as we go along. He has great instincts to play the game."

While the Ravens (1-2) are coming off a bad game, the Redskins have yet to win at all. Fassel was quick to note how his New York Giants team made the Super Bowl in 2001 after going 0-4 in August.

Although mostly focused on how the team performs Sept. 10 in the opener against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, this preseason game carries more importance than usual.

"We want to feel like we've played crisp, executed, not had penalties or turned the ball over," Fassel said. "I hope it's not three plays and out. If it's 10, 12 plays, it'll be great."

Billick has been reluctant to outline exactly how much he'll expand the starters' allotment of playing time, which traditionally only lasts for one series at this stage.

"You'd love to go down the field on a 13-play drive and they're done and then the defense gives you a couple of three-and-outs," Billick said.

Added offensive tackle Adam Terry: "We want to come out like a buzz-saw."

One major bullet point on the Ravens' agenda is avoiding the red-zone stumbles that cost them several prime scoring opportunities against the Eagles. The Ravens have been outscored 57-43 this month.

"We just want to have one game without making a mistake or killing ourselves in the red zone," wide receiver Derrick Mason said. "Being efficient and moving the football is critical for us, and it needs to start happening right now. The season is right around the corner."

Aaron Wilson writes for the Carroll County Times

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