Ravens: 'It's fixable'

OWINGS MILLS -- Neatness and fluidity of motion are paramount during dress rehearsals, and the Baltimore Ravens are beyond frustrated at how they've disrupted their own timing and caused stadiums to be littered with yellow flags.

Besides the critical final evaluation for a handful of players on the roster bubble heading into tonight's preseason finale against the Atlanta Falcons at the Georgia Dome, the defending AFC North champions are looking to sharpen their focus.

Twenty penalties combined over the past two weeks have left the Ravens (1-2) scratching their heads as they prepare for the season opener against the Cincinnati Bengals.

"It's fixable," tight end Todd Heap said. "It's all just focus problems. We need to make sure we all know what's going on and are paying attention.

"We need to be able to block everything out and focus on the snap count. When we can eliminate those problems, we can be a pretty good offense."

During a weather-abbreviated 13-7 loss to the Washington Redskins a week ago, the Ravens committed nine penalties in one half. It was two less than their total in a loss to the New York Giants.

Last week at FedEx Field, three of the five starting offensive linemen jumped offsides, an infraction repeated by Heap. Now, the Ravens have to contend with a traditionally-loud, indoor stadium.

"We have to take ownership of our game," said right tackle Adam Terry, another guilty party last week. "If we don't, then we're just going to be sitting on the bench. I'll be relegated to my one cooler seat next to Jonathan Ogden.

"I think we're going in the right direction. Granted, we made mistakes, but it's better than jumping offsides in Cincinnati and, all of a sudden, we're looking around and they're throwing points up on the board and we're in third-and-long all the time."

Plus, the running game has skidded to a halt with new franchise runner Willis McGahee only gaining 35 yards on 14 carries for a 2.5 average per carry and 11.6 per game. Baltimore ranked 25th in rushing last season.

"You have to get into a flow when you're running the ball," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "We'll look at it and we have to run the ball more consistently."

That shortcoming along with a conservative passing game with veteran Steve McNair averaging only 5.71 yards per attempt has produced a total of 26 first-half points. Although McNair has completed 71.4 percent of his throws (25 for 35) with two touchdowns and one interception, he hasn't been asked to increase the degree of difficulty yet.

A fast start, not another false start, is what the team is banking on.

Last week, Baltimore didn't drive the ball consistently until their third drive as they were stymied early by penalties, a dormant running game and McNair being harassed.

"You have to establish a rhythm, and that's something we didn't do in the last game for the first series," wide receiver Derrick Mason said. "We must establish a rhythm, we must set a tone for the upcoming season, and I think we will. We've worked very well in practice, and I don't see us deviating from that.

"I see us hopefully putting together some good drives. We need to pick up what the Falcons are going to do on defense, because they're very aggressive, and make sure that we don't do anything that's going to kill ourselves, meaning penalties or turnovers."

Usually, the starters are slated to play only a few series in the last preseason game. However, they could go as long as the entire first quarter or a tad longer tonight.

Although getting the starters in sync for the opener remains the big-picture priority, the Ravens are also preparing to cut 20 players to get down to 53 on the roster by Saturday's NFL deadline.

One looming decision is whether to keep Heisman Trophy winner Troy Smith or try to sneak the rookie quarterback through waivers and keep him on the practice squad. He's likely to play the entire second half after not playing last week due to the weather.

Last year, Baltimore only carried two quarterbacks on the active roster.

"I'm excited for any chance to get on the field, because that missed time is something you can't get back," Smith said. "I can't worry about what's going to happen."

Meanwhile, team officials have to choose between defensive backs Jamaine Winborne and Evan Oglesby, linebackers Dennis Haley and Edgar Jones, receivers Devard Darling and Clarence Moore and determine the fate of kickoff specialist Rhys Lloyd, running back Cory Ross and defensive tackle Atiyyah Ellison.

"Try talking to the guys and asking them how meaningless this is," Billick said. "This will probably be as competitive a preseason game as there is all year long because you've got guys that are trying to make a name for themselves." By the end of this weekend, the makeshift metal lockers that housed several rookies and free agents will be removed and the locker room will be a lot emptier.

"It's just a brutal fact because you come in here and there are 80-plus guys and you look around and say, 'Man, all these lockers in the middle will be gone,'" Heap said. "That's the harsh reality we have to deal with."

NOTES: Rookie linebacker Antwan Barnes (sprained ankle) is likely to be a game-time decision. ... Safety Ed Reed is expected to play after suffering a thigh contusion last week. ... Not expected to play because of sprained ankles: tight end Daniel Wilcox, cornerback Samari Rolle and wide receiver Mark Clayton. ... David Pittman is scheduled to start in place of Rolle again, and Demetrius Williams will start in Clayton's spot.

FIVE THINGS TO WATCH 1. During tonight's preseason finale against the Atlanta Falcons at the Georgia Dome, the Baltimore Ravens' offense is looking to stop jumping offsides after generating nearly as many false-start penalties (six) as points scored (10) over the past three quarters.

2. Will newly-acquired franchise running back Willis McGahee get untracked after an unproductive month where he has averaged just over 10 yards per content? And will the offensive line be shuffled with Adam Terry working at left tackle in case All-Pro Jonathan Ogden is sidelined for the season opener with rookies Jared Gaither and Marshal Yanda working on the right side?

3. Can Heisman Trophy winner Troy Smith impress the scouts and coaches enough to convince them to carry three quarterbacks on the active roster?

4. Who will win the fierce roster battles being waged between wide receivers Devard Darling and Clarence Moore, defensive backs Evan Oglesby and Jamaine Winborne, linebackers Dennis Haley and Edgar Jones, defensive tackle Atiyyah Ellison and kicker Rhys Lloyd? The bubble will pop Saturday, when 20 players will be cut.

5. In his second NFL start in place of injured starter Samari Rolle, will cornerback David Pittman overcome the nerves that plagued him last week, and will he do a better job of finding the football in the air when challenged?

Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.

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