Big Easy: Ravens offense resurgent

NEW ORLEANS -- It wasn't ground-breaking innovation, space-age imagination or even particularly surprising incarnations of an NFL playbook. That doesn't make what the Baltimore Ravens accomplished offensively any less unusual or impressive, though, as coach Brian Billick made his season debut calling plays in the wake of firing offensive coordinator Jim Fassel.

With a blend of rarely witnessed play-action elements, spread formations that featured four wide receivers and a powerful running game that had been slumbering for the entire season, the Ravens exploited the New Orleans Saints' defense and rolled to a 35-22 victory on Sunday that marks the first win by a road team this season at the raucous Louisiana Superdome.
With Billick at the controls, Baltimore (5-2) actually seemed to be having fun on offense as it snapped a two-game losing streak. An offense ranked 28th overall heading into Sunday even earned a grade of B-minus from its toughest critic, wide receiver Derrick Mason.
"It seemed like whatever Brian dialed up seemed to work," Mason said after Baltimore took over sole possession of first place in the AFC North, one game ahead of the Cincinnati Bengals. "It seemed like guys were just energetic and ready to go. It was hard to believe it was the same offense. That's the kind of offense we're supposed to have."
Meanwhile, the defense intercepted New Orleans (5-2) four times as rookie defensive backs and Louisiana natives Ronnie Prude and Dawan Landry each returned one for a touchdown.
"I particularly like the play calls of the two interceptions for touchdowns," Billick quipped. "Today was players knowing what it is they needed to do, having worked it properly in practice. The players deserve to have the best that we can always offer them. I'm going to do that anytime that I can."
The imprint of Billick installing himself to run the offense became immediately apparent in the first quarter when the Ravens managed to score their first of three touchdowns on three trips inside the Saints' red zone.
Instead of using a fade pass, as had a disastrous habit, the Ravens lined up in a spread formation on successive downs. With the defense occupied with the receivers on 3rd-and-goal, no one accounted for McNair bursting up the middle on a quarterback draw for a 5-yard touchdown and a 7-0 lead.
"If I didn't know what was going on, I know they didn't," said running back Jamal Lewis, who rushed for a season-high 109 yards on 31 carries in his heaviest workload since the end of the 2004 season. "By [Billick] coming in with confidence since the first day he took over, it made everyone more alert. I think we kind of feed off him more than anything else.
"I think from Day 1, we knew we were going to be more aggressive. He told us why we were running what plays."
The Ravens employed more explosive vertical passing plays than usual. Tight end Todd Heap was all by himself on a 30-yard reception that set up a touchdown.
"That was huge for us because when you're successful doing those plays you can get some play-action passes in there," Heap said. "Then, it opens things up down the field as well." Meanwhile, McNair played perhaps his best football game of the season.
In his first game since suffering a Grade 2 concussion in a 23-21 loss to the Carolina Panthers, McNair threw for two touchdowns, ran for another and didn't commit a turnover after giving away four in the previous two games.
McNair completed 17 of 23 passes for 159 yards for a 121.5 passer rating. The three-time Pro Bowl passer's accuracy was markedly improved, especially in the red zone where he located 6-foot-6 wide receiver Clarence Moore for a score. This time, it wasn't a fade being intercepted by Denver Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey. It was a simple inside pass thrown crisply and on time.
"It was a clean day for us," said McNair, whose mobility factored into the Ravens' resurgent attack. "Brian came in and put in some plays that I really liked and feel very comfortable with and we went out and executed. That's what this game is all about. We didn't stop ourselves."
It certainly didn't hurt the Ravens' cause to have the critical element of luck.
Leading 21-7 following Saints quarterback Drew Brees' 32-yard touchdown pass to Joe Horn on cornerback Samari Rolle's missed tackle, the Ravens managed one of their most inexplicable scores in recent memory.Even when McNair committed an error, he wound up producing a touchdown.
Late in the second quarter, McNair short-armed his end-zone pass intended for Heap. With linebacker Scott Fujita in position to intercept the ball, cornerback Jason Craft's finger struck the ball and it deflected directly into Heap's outstretched hands for the score and a 28-7 lead heading into halftime.
"That was lucky," McNair acknowledged. "We didn't practice going through three guys. He did a great job of concentrating on the catch."
"Sometimes, it can go through one guy, but it doesn't usually go through three guys," Heap said. "It was one of those quick reaction type of deals. That wasn't how it was drawn up."
It was simply that kind of day for the Ravens, whose improved offense benefited heavily from Lewis' first 100-yard game since last December and his most physical performance since being granted a $5 million signing bonus in the offseason.
"He is running hard and physical and that's the style running game we're going to have," Billick said. "It's great to get him cranked up."
With Brees throwing three interceptions, two on deflected pass and being sacked twice, the Ravens also shut down athletic rookie running back Reggie Bush.
Before linebacker Bart Scott's open-field tackle knocked Bush out of the game with an ankle injury, middle linebacker Ray Lewis intercepted the Heisman Trophy winner's halfback option pass meant for imposing rookie Marques Colston in the back of the end zone. Bush also lost a fumble on a hit by safety Gerome Sapp that was recovered by cornerback Chris McAlister.
"I've been in the league a long time," Lewis said. "Anytime he's not attacking the line, I know what it's going to be. I just ran to the back of the end zone when I saw him bubble out."
Then, Lewis had to contend with McAlister demanding the football. So, he complied.
"He was yelling, ‘Give me the ball! Give me the ball!" Lewis said. "I'm going to let him have that one."
Brees wound up piling up 383 yards on 45 throws with touchdown passes to Horn along with 47-yard and 25-yard scoring tosses to Colston.
However, the Saints were unable to run the ball and generated just 35 yards on 14 carries as Bush finished with 16 on five carries and Deuce McAllister chipped in just 11 yards on five rushes.
With the defense doing its job and the offense contributing much more heavily to the team's cause than it did under Fassel, who drew criticism for not being receptive to players' input and for not having a strong enough work ethic, the Ravens won handily.
When asked if he felt more pressure now that he's calling the plays, Billick replied: "You jump off a 30-story building of a 50-story building. At some point, it's just another story. It feels good to have grease on my hands. I haven't had that for a while."
With the Ravens winning for the fifth year in a row following a bye, perhaps the most telling story was what didn't happen. There were no sideline confrontations between Billick and players, which had previously occurred with him and offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden.
"Brian was about to yell and cuss, and I started to for him, so he wouldn't have to," Ogden said. "Brian was great. Brian did an excellent job. I think guys were just committed and wanted to execute because we knew it was going to be tough on Brian as a play-caller."
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times in Westminster, Maryland.

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