Ravens searching for killer instinct

OWINGS MILLS -- The Baltimore Ravens aren't exactly experiencing a true crisis, or approaching a crucial crossroads. This isn't a time for closed-door, players' meetings, fire-and-brimstone motivational speeches or dramatic, watershed philosophical changes The reigning AFC North champions do qualify as something of a mystery, though, heading into Sunday's game against the Arizona Cardinals.

Through two games, it's hard to define the Ravens' identity beyond a nasty defensive personality that usually places a tight stranglehold on offenses.

Several questions remain unanswered.

Are the Ravens (1-1) the team that struggled on offense with six turnovers in a high-profile, season-opening 27-20 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals?

Or are they the efficient, turnover-free outfit that calmly moved the football a week ago as backup Kyle Boller replaced starter Steve McNair, who returns to the lineup today from a groin pull?

Is the defense the resilient unit that kept Baltimore in the game against Cincinnati while McNair fumbled three times and was intercepted once? Or are the Ravens the shoddy-tackling, sloppy group that nearly collapsed in the fourth quarter against a neophyte quarterback during last week's 20-13 win over the New York Jets?

Without a few dropped potential touchdown passes by the Jets' Justin McCareins, the Ravens could potentially be 0-2 and truly staring in the mirror in a quest for answers.

"I think we're still trying to learn how to finish out games," tight end Todd Heap said. "That's something that is hard to do in this league. You've got to learn how to have that killer instinct. When we get up by two touchdowns or whatever, you've got to keep pressing.

"You've got to keep putting teams down because you can't leave that door open. The NFL's too tight. Teams are too good, players are too good. They can sense it and they know exactly what's going on out there. So, it was a lot closer than we wanted it to be last week, but we can learn from those situations."

The Ravens weren't facing these questions at this stage of last season.

Not after opening 2-0 and outscoring the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Oakland Raiders by a combined 55-6 clip en route to a franchise-record 13-3 campaign, a division title and the second playoff seed in the AFC. Especially not considering they had 271 yards and 264 yards of total offense, respectively, to begin last season, with just one turnover combined.

That team didn't lack the compunction to figuratively step on someone's throat.

"We're out to get back and make sure we put teams out and not give them the opportunity to come back, because they're too good to leave that window open," linebacker Bart Scott said. "You don't want to beat a team for 50 minutes and end up on the short end of the stick because you didn't close the deal."

One sign of improvement was the absence of any turnovers last week one week removed from the Cincinnati debacle.

"These guys know what the turnovers did to us the week before," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "They are going to be very conscious of that."

Still, Baltimore leads the NFL with 21 penalties, including eight apiece on offense and defense.

This year, the Ravens have allowed only two defensive touchdowns but are surrendering 208 passing yards per contest.

The secondary allowed Kellen Clemens to pass for 176 yards in the fourth quarter alone as the Jets scored 10 unanswered points to cut into a 20-3 deficit after three quarters. The defensive backs allowed completions of 44, 23, 50 and 24 yards in the fourth quarter against New York.

Cornerback Samari Rolle, who's questionable with an undisclosed illness that could mean nickel back Corey Ivy would pick up a rare start today, was flagged for a 26-yard pass interference penalty and safety Gerome Sapp was hit with a 5-yard holding penalty that converted a third down.

"Because we had a little lead, guys tended to get out of the framework of the defense," Rolle said. "You can't do that. We just started messing up. But people have to realize that we still won the game. Everybody made it seem like we lost a game. Just watch us Sunday."

Cornerback Chris McAlister, who was blameless for the breakdowns, refused to discuss the fourth quarter this week despite repeated questioning.

Going forward, Billick expressed hope that the lapses in concentration could wind up being a positive.

"It's great that it didn't cost us the game, and I love the fact that they are challenged by that," Billick said. "We could've finished that game out a lot differently and it would have been heavier lifting this week to keep them focused going into the next game. It hasn't been a problem this week."

Now, they're facing the challenge of defending Cardinals star wide receivers Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald.

"I think this truly helps us prepare for those big-time receivers, the Marvin Harrisons, the Randy Mosses, these other guys who are going to be coming to town," middle linebacker Ray Lewis said.

Conversely, strong-armed, young Cardinals quarterback Matt Leinart, the matinee idol from USC who has been linked to Paris Hilton, Britney Spears and other Hollywood types, is aware that the Ravens would like nothing better than to bring him down to earth following last week's upset victory over the Seattle Seahawks.

"These types of games are what quarterbacks should want to be a part of," Leinart said. "I don't think it defines you as a player because it's so early, but this is probably the toughest defense we will play. For us to be a good team, we have to be able to beat teams like this."

The Ravens won't have offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden (turf toe) in the lineup today or defensive end Trevor Pryce (broken left wrist), with Adam Terry and Dwan Edwards taking their respective places.

Through the adversity of the first two weeks, McNair said he has learned something about his teammates.

"It's the unity and character that this team shows," he said. "With your back up against the wall, that shows the character of this football team. We play for each other in a way that nobody knows.

"What's in this locker room is very special. This team here is one of the closest teams I've been on in my 13 years. That's what it takes."

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

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