Ravens hitting the wall

OWINGS MILLS -- The Baltimore Ravens' patchwork offensive line has been ravaged by injuries, a mounting attrition that rivals the amount of touchdowns that coach Brian Billick can count on one hand. The reigning division champions are the lowest-scoring team in the AFC North, and their five touchdowns is tied for third-lowest in the NFL. Their red-zone travails have reached crisis proportions.

Yet, Billick isn't sounding the alarm. Not after a 9-7 victory over the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday at Monster Park that featured three Matt Stover field goals and was lowlighted by the Ravens gaining just five yards on five plays inside the 20-yard line.

"I can't tell the fans how they want to look at it," Billick said. "If nine points will do it the next two times we go to the West Coast in San Diego and Seattle, great, super, I'll take it.

"Not perfect, a lot of things we've got to do better. Some things that we did will leave us vulnerable if they happen again in terms of what we did and didn't do. I hope our fans can appreciate how hard it is to win in this league. People will extrapolate what they want out of it, but I'm thrilled to have that win."

Considering that the Ravens finished the game with three rookie linemen as left guard Jason Brown and center Chris Chester represented the most experienced blockers in their third and second seasons, respectively, the Ravens (3-2) were relieved to escape the Bay Area with a win.

Already without All-Pro left tackle Jonathan Ogden due to a toe injury, the Ravens lost backup left tackle Adam Terry to a sprained left ankle and center Mike Flynn to a sprained knee during a second-quarter series.

Rookie left tackle Jared Gaither, the 6-foot-9, 350-pound former University of Maryland standout, replaced Terry and Chester moved over to center. Next to Chester, a pair of rookies manned the right side: guard Ben Grubbs and tackle Marshal Yanda.

Somehow, quarterback Steve McNair was never sacked.

"I don't know if it was dominating, but they played very, very well," said Billick, who acknowledged that Terry could remain out this week and that it could be the same configuration of young blockers this weekend. "They ran the ball well. They protected very well.

"For those guys to hold up the way they did without a sack, I thought it was excellent. I don't know if I'd call it dominating, but it was very, very encouraging."

That adjective can't be attached to the Ravens' red-zone performance, though.

The Ravens have scored only one touchdown in their past 10 quarters. They have scored one touchdown -- a catch by tight end Quinn Sypniewski in a 27-13 loss to the Cleveland Browns -- in their past six red-zone tries.

It's more than a trend at this point. It's a full-scale epidemic.

"We've still got a long way to go, especially in the red zone," said McNair, who has less touchdown passes (two) than turnovers (five). "But there's no one person, one call, one message. We just have to get together and put a package together and continue to improve.

"We still have time to work on it, and we're going to work on it. It's okay to get down there, but we have to score some points."

The end zone has become a no-man's land for Baltimore despite regularly moving the football as they are averaging 346.2 yards of total offense per contest to rank 11th overall.

However, the more telling, pivotal statistic is their No. 21 ranking in scoring offense with a 17.6 point average.

"On the offense, we're doing a number of different things well that allow us to be productive, to chew up the clock," Billick said. "But you've got to come away with a touchdown. Countless hours are being put into it in terms of the evaluation and what we can do.

"We're adjusting it every way we can, looking at it, talking about it, seeing what other teams are doing, bringing focus to it. We're doing everything we can to come away with a touchdown instead of field goals."

Billick defended McNair's performance, although the three-time Pro Bowl quarterback is averaging just 5.9 yards per pass attempt.

"Steve is doing an excellent job," Billick said. "I'm not trying to sound catty about it, but they get paid to stop you and Mike Nolan is doing a great job with that defense. We'd like to get some bigger plays downfield obviously, but they configured themselves in a way that changed the game plan quite a deal."

McNair did manage to not tweak his nagging groin pull against the 49ers and Billick pointed out that his increased mobility that allowed Baltimore to attempt a few waggle play-calls.

When asked if there was anything physically limiting McNair's ability to throw downfield, Billick replied: "No, I think you saw Steve more active. He moved around better than maybe the two previous weeks. Took a couple shots downfield and didn't get them, but took a couple shots down the field."

The Ravens reached the 49ers' 11- and 13-yard lines, but, each time, they had to settle for another Stover field goal. With 13 field goals, he's tied for the most in the league with the Houston Texans' Kris Brown.

At one point, the Ravens had a scoring drive of eight plays that lasted 3 minutes and 14 seconds where they only gained 11 yards following a clutch interception by safety Ed Reed.

"It's always disappointment when you don't get in the end zone," running back Willis McGahee said. "We got to work on that. We got to get more consistent. We always drive down there, but we never finish."

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

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