Billick unsatisfied with Ravens' output

OWINGS MILLS -- One day after a costly meltdown that dented the Baltimore Ravens' playoff outlook and prompted conversations about soul-searching, the reigning AFC North champions officially launched a vacation. As the Ravens (4-3) departed their training complex for the next seven days heading into their bye, a diverse collection of problems are still haunting them.

With the schedule about to increase in difficulty starting with a critical Nov. 5 road game against the Pittsburgh Steelers and challenges against the undefeated New England Patriots and defending Super Bowl champion Indianapolis Colts on the horizon, the Ravens have arrived at a crossroads.

"Being at 4-3, we have left ourselves vulnerable like every team that has two or three losses," Ravens coach Brian Billick said Monday. "At some point, one of those losses will come back to haunt you. Am I satisfied with 4-3? No, of course not.

"We earned the 4-3, both good and bad. Can we be optimistic about the future about who's coming back to us? Yeah."

The aftermath of a lackluster 19-14 defeat to the Buffalo Bills left the Ravens puzzled by their 11 penalties, including an inability to stay onsides, and zero points during the first half against the NFL's 31st-ranked defense that entered the game allowing 420 yards per contest and held the Ravens to a season-low 308 yards of total offense.

Despite an offense that struggles to capitalize in the red zone, multiple injuries to starters that have reduced the lineup to a skeleton crew and a traditionally ferocious defense that has become more and more vulnerable, the Ravens remain in the playoff hunt.

A victory over the Steelers could catapult the Ravens into first-place in the division.

"All you can ever ask in this game is: Can I play a game that matters in November and December?" Billick said. "Otherwise, you're just being greedy. We're playing in November for a chance to lead the division."

A lack of focus typified the Ravens' breakdowns in Buffalo as they appeared to have their minds elsewhere, perhaps on an impending break.

"It was a lack of focus on offense and defense," said running back Willis McGahee, one of the few players who seemed to have his game-face on with a season-high 114 rushing yards and a dramatic touchdown run.

It's not as if the possibility of the Ravens not being mentally prepared didn't occur to the coaching staff. Nonetheless, they were powerless to stop the onset of mass sloppiness.

A generally flat team didn't come close to approaching the Bills' intensity.

"We talked and tried to bring focus, recognizing the potential for that in playing a 1-4 team before the bye week," Billick said. "You tried to address it as best you can, but it's after the fact now."

So is any 20-20 hindsight on a debatable set of play-calling from Billick when the Ravens were trying to mount a late comeback.

With a 2nd-and-1 at the Bills' 49-yard line with 1:59 remaining in the game and one timeout left, Billick called for backup quarterback Kyle Boller to throw three consecutive passes. All three fell incomplete, though, and the Ravens never touched the football again.

Billick admitted that he should have called a running play on 4th-and-1 to try to get a first down to extend the drive.

"If I had to do it again, we probably should have run it on fourth-and-one," Billick said. "Don't know if we would have got it or not, but it probably would have been the prudent thing to do.

"Had we not got it, we would probably be sitting here talking about, 'Well, why did you run it when you knew they would stuff all of those people in the line of scrimmage.' If you are in that situation again, what might we do differently?"

That decision along with all the penalties, not tackling Bills rookie running back Marshawn Lynch and failing to rattle rookie quarterback Trent Edwards halted the Ravens' hope to gain ground on the Steelers.

It also sets up a long week for the coaches and scouting department analyzing what has gone awry, and what changes to potentially enact. They'll also begin installing a game plan for the Steelers and plan ahead for the Cincinnati Bengals on Nov. 11.

"It certainly would be a much more enjoyable week sitting here at 5-2 than at 4-3," Billick said. "I don't know what the lingering effects are."

Still, Billick wasn't inclined to punish the players by making them work during their designated week off. Practice will resume next Monday, and the Ravens are likely to have every player back healthy, including quarterback Steve McNair and tight end Todd Heap, with the exception of tight end Daniel Wilcox.

"We would not have accomplished enough to offset the fact that we would physically be pressing them beyond what we need to," Billick said. "Right now, what we need more than anything is to get some R & R."

Not to mention a more effective offense, a stingier defense and a more sure-handed return game.

Plus, the Ravens' four wins have come against teams with a combined record of 6-21, including the winless St. Louis Rams, and several unproven or backup quarterbacks.

And their three defeats have come at the hands of opponents with an aggregate mark of 7-11. Now, the Ravens are facing a gut-check.

"To a man, you got to look at yourself in the eye and say: 'Do you really want to play this game? Do you really want to go out there and give it your all?'" wide receiver Derrick Mason said. "You can talk it all you want. But if you want to act tough, play tough. That's my attitude, and that's everybody, including me.

"If you want to talk the talk, prove it. We're in a corner right now. And nobody can sugarcoat it. Either we're going to come out fighting like a lion or we're going to stay balled up like a cub."

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

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