Billick: 'The mindset appears to be good'

NEW ORLEANS -- In the Baltimore Ravens' renewed quest for an offensive identity and increased points, coach Brian Billick's fingerprints are leaving an indelible impression. According to his players, no stone has gone unturned with Billick in control of the offense and no detail is too mundane with several hinting at a streamlined attack that will try to emphasize explosive plays.

Several players remarked that the team has been energized by Billick installing himself to call plays after firing offensive coordinator Jim Fassel.
Although Billick hasn't publicly defined exactly what he'll do to try to inject life into an offense suffocated by turnovers, a punchless running game and a struggling veteran quarterback, players say he's scrapped several plays and put in a few new wrinkles.
In a clash between first-place teams today in New Orleans, the Ravens (4-2) will begin discovering what impact Billick's singular, hands-on grip of his adaptation of the West Coast offense will yield against the NFC South leading Saints (5-1).
"The offense hasn't changed drastically as far as the plays we run and the plays we're practicing, but it will change play-calling wise," tight end Todd Heap said. "It's the kind of style that Brian brings to the table. We'll see if we will be throwing the ball down the field a little more and hopefully that will open up some running game for us."
There's little doubt that some sort of major change was needed. Especially with the Ravens ranked 28th in total offense, having scored just 11 touchdowns while committing 10 turnovers.
Although tied with the Cincinnati Bengals atop the AFC North, the Ravens are the lowest-ranked division leader offensively.
The hope is that with Billick's direct involvement with the system he implemented in Baltimore after a record-setting stint as the Minnesota Vikings' offensive coordinator, a groundswell change will occur.
"This is his offense, it's his scheme and everything, so who else knows it better than he does?," said running back Jamal Lewis, who's averaging just 58 rushing yards per contest. "He was very specific in what he's trying to get through to us and everything, and he's doing a great job. So far, he's explained in detail what goes into winning and putting it together to make everybody understand, work together and know what's going on."
It's clear that Billick, although it was painful for him to fire a longtime friend, has embraced his altered responsibilities.
This represents a return to his roots as a coach. "It's fun," Billick said. "In all careers, you move along, but sometimes it's great to go back to kind of where you started. You miss those times." Longer, more energetic meetings have typified the first week of Billick as a full-time play-caller for the first time since he arrived in Baltimore in 1999.
"You can tell the difference when he comes in the meeting room because he's animated," Heap said. "I think we were in offensive meetings for an extra 40 minutes just because he likes to talk. He makes sure everybody understands what their job is on each play and goes over it thoroughly.
"Hopefully, we can expect less mental errors and fewer mistakes. He keeps you on your toes in the meeting room. He's always asking questions. He will try to catch you off-guard."
Now, the Ravens are liable to try to get quarterback Steve McNair into a groove by going after the Saints' inexperienced safeties: Omar Stoutmire and Josh Bullocks.
Billick has always favored the vertical strike, especially when he directed an offense that generated an NFL-record 541 points in 1998 with the Vikings.
The problem, though, is McNair is tied with Joey Harrington for 30th in the NFL in passer rating (64.1) and ranks 34th in the league with 5.3 yards per attempt.
"I think a lot of the players are buying into it," said McNair regarding the shift to Billick. "We haven't been clicking from the first day, but I think we've got some stuff in that we can get myself in a rhythm and get this offense in a rhythm to balance this thing out."
Meanwhile, the Ravens are facing a Saints defense that has surrendered 5.6 rushing yards per carry over the past three games where they allowed at least one rushing touchdown per outing.
Although Lewis is averaging just 3.6 yards per carry, he remains entrenched as the starter ahead of Mike Anderson and Musa Smith.
Billick declined to put the brunt of the blame for an ineffective running game on Lewis, a former NFL Offensive Player of the Year, saying that wouldn't be fair.
"Jamal has his share of responsibility, as does the offensive line, as do we as coaches," Billick said. "My confidence in this running back corps and in Jamal specifically has not wavered."
It's unclear just how much different the offense will appear, but it's clear that it can't get much worse.
Not with six turnovers in the past two games, or a running game and a passing game that rank 26th and 25th overall, respectively.
When asked directly how different the changes will appear to fans, Billick replied: "If we are productive, they will. If we're not, then I doubt it. I'm not trying to soft-play it, but it will come down to the execution of the players and that's going to be dependent upon how good we did as a staff putting them in position to practice what they needed to practice to look good. The mindset seems to be very good and hopefully we can capitalize on that."
Billick's point rings true considering that the Ravens haven't established a positive track record as a running team or a passing team. So far, they've primarily been a punting team with rookie Sam Koch getting plenty of exercise.
The staunchest critic of the offense has been receiver Derrick Mason, whose voice wasn't heard under Fassel, whom players said was unresponsive to their ideas.
"Who would be having fun with their offense being last in the NFL?" Mason said. "If you're having fun and you're dead last in the NFL, then your competitive spirit isn't there.
"I know a lot of guys around here that were upset, knowing what we have on the offensive side of the ball, yet we were still unable to produce points. If you're not able to produce points in this league, you're not going to be having fun."

Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times in Westminster, Maryland.

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