Red-zone woes haunting Ravens

OWINGS MILLS -- The mystery of the Baltimore Ravens' red-zone blues has become troublesome enough to warrant red-alert treatment. After watching his team fail to score a touchdown in three out of four trips inside the Cleveland Browns' 20-yard line during a 27-13 loss Sunday, Ravens coach Brian Billick was alarmed at how ineffectual the team is at finishing what it starts.

Baltimore managed to lose despite gaining 418 yards of total offense, 26 first downs, controlling the clock for nine more minutes than the Browns, never punting and having running back Willis McGahee pile up 104 rushing yards on 14 carries.

"That was the oddest stat sheet I think I've ever seen," Billick said Monday.

One year removed from a franchise-record 13-3 mark, the Ravens (2-2) are just one loss behind their entire season total from last year.

Through one quarter of the schedule, the Ravens have scored just five touchdowns in 14 trips inside the 20-yard line for a 35.7 percentage.

"We've done it all, either shots to the end zone, throwing it to an underneath guy and hoping he can make a play and pounding it in," Billick said. "That last one is the one we've got to be better at. We've got to be better at running the ball in the red zone."

Whether it was quarterback Steve McNair misfiring on three consecutive passes during one sequence Sunday or not being able to score during the final minute against the Cincinnati Bengals despite having a first-and-goal, the Ravens' problems keep haunting them.

"Our main focus going into next week and the rest of the season is the red zone," McNair said. "We drive the ball on anybody from the 20 to the 20, but we left 35 points on the board. From the 20 to the 20, we're the best in the National Football League. We just have to concentrate more and we have to put more into the game plan."

Identifying solutions as to how the Ravens might score is complicated.

With McNair's errant throws and the high degree of difficulty near the goal line, the Ravens likely have to either draw up more imaginative plays than their patended fade pass or power the football into the end zone.

Yet, McGahee isn't an overpowering back at 6-foot, 228 pounds and neither is backup Musa Smith, who was held to five yards on five carries Sunday. McGahee is averaging 2.8 yards a carry with no touchdowns inside opponents' 20-yard line.

The Ravens attempted just four runs during a dozen red-zone plays agains the Browns.

"We're doing enough other good things that it allows us to bring focus to that," Billick said. "Obviously, it's very important and it's the next thing for this offense to now complete itself."

Billick acknowledged that attempting 53 passes wasn't the ideal strategy. Traditionally, launching that many throws is the trademark of a losing team.

"You throw the ball 53 times, you're probably going to lose," Billick said. "I'll bet less than five percent of the time that a team throws the ball that much actually wins. They usually throw it that much because they have to."

Baltimore ran the ball just 20 times for 111 yards, controlling the football for 34 minutes and 29 seconds.

However, only eight of those runs came after halftime.

"Given the score differential and the way the time was slipping away, we shoved the ball up there a couple of more times than maybe was prudent," Billick said. "When you have that kind of deficit, time becomes a factor."

McNair completed only 4 of 8 passes for 28 yards inside the red zone Sunday against defense that had allowed a league-leading 11 touchdown passes. Afterward, McNair was adamant that it wasn't a slight twist to his groin that affected his delivery, claiming he simply mistimed his throws The three-time Pro Bowl quarterback has lost three out of his past four starts dating back to the Ravens' playoff loss to the Indianapolis Colts.

Still, Billick said he's not inclined to rest McNair for a week or two and play backup Kyle Boller, adding that he didn't think McNair would be fully healed until after the Ravens' bye on Oct. 28.

"That's a thought certainly, but I don't think Steve's that injured," Billick said. "The last two weeks he has played and thrown the ball very well. If it was affecting his throw and affecting his accuracy, I don't see it.

"I don't think he feels like it's bad enough to not play at all. If I have any inkling that he tweaks it or could aggravate it, then I won't hesitate to go to Kyle because I don't want that thing to linger."

McNair has completed 64.9 percent of his throws for 708 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions for an 80.6 quarterback rating. He has also lost four fumbles.

Billick reiterated that McNair is his quarterback Monday and he's not dissatisfied with his play.

"I don't know that I could ask for a lot more of him," Billick said. "If he was struggling and I could identify that indeed it was him, then certainly I would give the other guy a chance to maybe give you that spark.

"We were up and down the field. There was nothing that Steve was not doing well in what we were trying to execute. It's strictly a, 'How is the groin holding up?' That's the only issue for us."

This is a critical period for the Ravens, whose next three games are against the San Francisco 49ers, St. Louis Rams and Buffalo Bills, teams with a a combined record of 3-9. Another setback would be extremely costly considering the elite portion of their schedule awaits in November and December.

"This team has got a lot of character, it's got a lot of leadership," Billick said. "They'll work hard this week."

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

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