Ravens' offense melting down

OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- The brutal truth about the Baltimore Ravens' latest offensive crisis was expressed succinctly inside their locker room shortly after midnight. Virtually the only difference between what transpired in a 13-3 loss Monday night to the Denver Broncos and how a sputtering offense has performed all season was the final outcome. It wasn't a regression, it was a repeat.

Only this time, quarterback Steve McNair turned in his most erratic performance since joining the team with three costly interceptions.
"If it's anybody's fault, it's mine," said McNair, who was unable to engineer a third consecutive comeback and is now the 26th-ranked passer in the NFL with a 67.0 rating. "I'll take the blame for this one. This is a wakeup call for us, but it's not pushing the panic button."
Now, the Ravens (4-1) rank 29th in the NFL in total offense with the No. 28 passing game and the No. 24 rushing attack.
Frustration bubbled over afterward, but it wasn't the second-ranked defense pointing fingers at their teammates.
It was primarily the offense that's extremely dissatisfied. Especially wide receiver Derrick Mason after Baltimore scored its fewest points since a 30-3 loss in Jacksonville last November.
"It's like a storm is coming and you're not getting ready for it," Mason said. "Our offense is not playing, plain and simple. It was evident in Game 1, Game 2, Game 3, Game 3 and very evident in Game 5. It's very, very disappointing and whoever tries to sugarcoat it, they don't need to be in this locker room, coaches included.
"If you try to sugarcoat it, you might as well be playing somewhere else and coaching somewhere else. It's a problem and we have to fix it somehow, someway."
The most glaring and momentum-choking breakdown was McNair's errant lob to 6-foot-6 wide receiver Clarence Moore in the end zone late in the second quarter with the score tied 3-3.
His short-armed pass wasn't high enough to prevent All-Pro cornerback Champ Bailey from grabbing the interception, and Moore didn't do anything to disrupt Bailey from making the play.
The decision to go after the Broncos' top cornerback was highly debatable. Especially since Moore had been inactive for three of five games.
"Ill-advised," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "We've got to coach it better, design it better and execute it better. It was very, very costly."
McNair went on to toss two more interceptions in his fifth game since being acquired in a trade in June. He finished 20 of 34 for 165 yards and a 34.6 passer rating in what marked his first game with more than two interceptions since 2004.
McNair rarely appears comfortable with the West Coast offense. His few bright spots have occurred when he's improvising or when Baltimore goes no-huddle.
"I think he's getting more comfortable, it's a work in progress," said Billick, who experimented briefly with empty sets in Denver. "You'd like for it to come quicker, but there are a lot of things going on around him. There were some very good things. There were some things that he will scratch his head and say, 'I can't believe I missed that.'"
McNair's inaccuracy and questionable decisions are far from the sole problem area, though.
Featured running back Jamal Lewis was stonewalled again, gaining just 43 yards on 15 carries for a 2.9 average.
He lacked the explosiveness to break tackles in the open field in one-on-one confrontations with safety John Lynch and linebacker Al Wilson. He didn't have enough of a burst to make it through some gaping holes opened by his blockers.
Meanwhile, reserve runners Musa Smith and Mike Anderson outperformed the former NFL Offensive Player of the Year as Smith registered a career-high for receptions (six) and yardage (53) while Anderson plowed straight ahead for 31 yards on five carries.
Billick didn't criticize Lewis or indicate whether his workload will be further decreased, but he sounds committed to sharing playing time between all three backs. Baltimore is averaging just 97.2 rushing yards per contest.
"If a back has a hot hand and is running well, we're going to ride that a little bit," Billick said. "Jamal's running hard and had some good, tough runs.
"I haven't looked at it in the detail to see, ‘Did he miss this hole?' Was there more of an opportunity? Could he step through it?' We're just looking for productivity. It's a balancing act."
The Ravens have developed precious little rhythm as an offense, an absent commodity evidenced by their ranking 28th in the NFL in red-zone offense with a 37.5 percent conversion rank on six touchdowns in 16 possessions inside opponents' 20-yard line.
"I don't know what's too harsh to say," tight end Todd Heap said. "Do we have an offensive identity? That's hard to say. Right now, we're not doing either very well, running or passing, so we have a lot of things to figure out.
"We didn't play our best ball the last four weeks, and we've won. The only difference this week is that we didn't play our best ball and we lost."
A few players took the big-picture view that an early loss to a quality team can be constructive depending on how they respond to multiple problems that characterized the defeat.
"It's good for us, quite honestly," defensive end Trevor Pryce said. "How does a team react? Do we go in the tank?
"This is a test of a championship team. Championship teams put this behind them instantly. Believe me, we're going to put it behind us."
Although the Ravens remain atop the AFC North with a half-game lead over the Cincinnati Bengals, they have little time to correct their mistakes. They host the Carolina Panthers (3-2), led by wide receiver Steve Smith and defensive end Julius Peppers, on Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium.
"There's always going to be a little self-pity and frustration," said Billick, who glanced at his watch a few times toward the end of his press conference and appeared eager to begin game-planning for Carolina and stop discussing the debacle in Denver. "Hell, I'm frustrated. I would be surprised if this team doesn't refocus very quickly. You don't have time to cry in your beer."
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times in Westminster, Maryland.

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