Passing game coming up short

OWINGS MILLS -- Steve McNair adhered strictly to the Baltimore Ravens' company line Wednesday regarding a passing game that's often more horizontal than vertically-inclined. The three-time Pro Bowl quarterback is directing the NFL's 10th-ranked passing game with 233 yards per contest, but the Ravens almost exclusively acquire yardage in small chunks with an average of 5.81 yards per pass attempt.

Avoiding turnovers is the mantra from the coaching staff, not taking risks downfield.

An inability to strike deep along with a foundering red-zone offense have combined to make the Ravens the lowest-scoring team in the AFC North with five touchdowns in five games, which ranks third from the bottom of the league. Baltimore has the 21st-ranked scoring offense with 17.6 points per game.

McNair emphasized that the Ravens (3-2) will continue to react to defensive alignments and won't dictate terms by forcing deep throws against what he perceives to be a stacked deck.

"It's hard to say because every defense dictates what we do offensively," said McNair, who overthrew receivers on a few isolated deeper patterns in a 9-7 victory Sunday over the San Francisco 49ers. "We're a team that's very patient and we'll take what the defense gives us. We don't try to force the issue.

"But when we have the opportunity to make big plays down the field, we have to because we only have limited chances to do it. I think that's the situation and why everybody's looking at it. We just haven't executed those big-opportunity plays."

It has been 13 series since Baltimore scored a touchdown. Despite McNair launching a combined 96 passes over the past two games for 521 yards on 65.8 percent accuracy, all of those dinks and dunks have only generated one touchdown.

And the Ravens have slumped into the 28th-ranked red-zone attack with just one touchdown in their past six journeys inside opponents' 20-yard lines.

"There's definitely a frustration," tight end Todd Heap said. "We want to score. We want to take the pressure off the defense. Nine points isn't always going to be good enough. "It's not a time to panic, to say, ‘Can we do it?' We know we can do it."

McNair has sailed several throws near the goal line, possibly due to his nagging groin pull that has improved over the past few weeks. There's also a running game spearheaded by former Pro Bowl runner Willis McGahee that hasn't been hard-nosed against goal-line defenses.

"We are doing poorly in the red zone and everything starts with the quarterback," McNair said. "Every good thing starts with the quarterback, every bad thing starts with the quarterback. So, I take that responsibility. The execution is not there in the red zone and it starts with me.

"I get the ball and I have to make good decisions. I've got to be precise. I've got to put my team in a position to go out and score in the red zone and we haven't done that. Eleven guys need to be executing on the same play in the same mind frame. I think that's the thing that we haven't been doing consistently all year."

The Ravens have cited a proliferance of Cover 2 defensive strategies as a major impetus for why they almost always throw short as Baltimore sports the NFL's leading receiver in Derrick Mason. However, his 44 receptions are averaging just 8.5 yards and he has only one touchdown catch.

McNair has 63 completions between zero and nine yards. Conversely, he has just three completions between 20 and 39 yards with an extremely low percentage of accuracy on deeper balls.

"There are a lot of possibilities," said McNair, who has more turnovers (five) than touchdown passes (two). "It all depends on the down and distance, and you don't want to force anything. My goal is just to keep the chains moving.

"Regardless of whether it's a vertical game or it's a short passing game, we are a ball-control offense. We want to try to control the ball and give our defense a rest that they need to go out and perform well. At the same time, we've got to make sure that we score points, too."

McNair predicted that the St. Louis Rams on Sunday will load up extra defenders at the line of scrimmage to account for McGahee's presence, so he anticipates man-to-man coverage outside and a chance to extend the throws.

"We've put a challenge on myself and also the receivers to go out and get the job done," McNair said. "We've got an opportunity to spread the ball offensively to the wideouts and the right ends, and we've got to take advantage of what they give us."

During the offseason with the acquisition of McGahee, the cosmetic promotion of quarterbacks coach Rick Neuheisel to offensive coordinator and Billick opting to retain play-calling duties after taking over that responsibility in the wake of firing offensive coordinator Jim Fassel last year, the Ravens continually predicted a more explosive, dynamic offense.

That scenario hasn't unfolded partly due to injuries to McNair, wide receivers, tight ends and the offensive line along with a series of conservative game plans from Billick.

"It's just the way we're being played, I think," McNair said when asked whether the team's offensive goals have changed. "We've got plays where we can force the issue, but why force the issue when you are moving the ball well.

"I think that's the thing that people look at. They want to see this explosive offense instead of seeing the fact that this team moves the ball down the field at their own pace."

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

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