Ravens looking for answers on two-game skid

OWINGS MILLS -- Discerning how the Baltimore Ravens went from being anointed around the league as a trendy Super Bowl pick two weeks ago to their current two-game losing streak is a bit complicated.   Yes, the Ravens (3-2) lost both games against teams with a combined record of 7-3 and won their three games against teams with a combined mark of 3-11.

And, yes, the offensive game plan hasn't been nearly as balanced as it was during the three victories.

Something else, though, has been missing in the two losses to the Cincinnati Bengals and the New England Patriots. The Ravens have been overaggressive at times and prone to penalties while lacking execution at other junctures.

Regardless of the reasons why, the reality of the what and what's next are dominating the Ravens' thoughts today as they begin preparing for the undefeated Minnesota Vikings (5-0) next Sunday at the Metrodome.

Of course, the situation could be even worse if not for middle linebacker Ray Lewis' dramatic tackle on San Diego Chargers running back Darren Sproles three weeks ago.

"The bottom line is this: We make a couple of plays we didn't make and we're 5-0," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said Monday. "We don't make a couple of plays in one other game and we're 2-3. That's the nature of the NFL. If you want to be in the hunt, we've got to win games like this.

"No matter what happened in the last couple of weeks we're still the same team we would have been and everybody would be singing our praises. All the things we're trying to become as a football team, those things are intact. We're the same team, basically, at 3-2 or 5-0. Essentially we've got the same issues, and the same things we're doing well."

Still, there have been some dramatic changes offensively over the past few weeks.

Suddenly, wide receiver Derrick Mason disappeared from the game plan against the Bengals. Listed on the injury report with a neck injury as probable, he caught no passes and was only targeted once.

Afterward, Mason said that he didn't know why he wasn't more involved and said those questions should be directed toward the coaching staff.

"Ain't no need to dwell on it," he said. "You dwell on it and you'll find yourself in the same situation the following week. I don't know what happened."

Harbaugh was short on details when asked why Mason didn't see more action.

"We're just trying to win a football game," he said. "That's what we're trying to do."

As for whether the Bengals did anything specific to neutralize Mason as a threat downfield, Harbaugh said that he assumed that the Bengals and all opponents focus on stopping the two-time Pro Bowl wide receiver.

"Derrick Mason's a really good player, it's important for us to get all our guys involved," Harbaugh said. "If one guy's not involved, someone else has to be involved. You try to attack them where they're not defending.

"If you're a really good player and you're not frustrated, then I'd be wondering what's going on. That's what good players do, that's how they feel after a loss. They want to do everything they can do to help their team win."

Fullback Le'Ron McClain said that offensive coordinator Cam Cameron told the team that the Bengals were intent on taking away the deep pass and stopping the run, forcing Baltimore into a dink-and-dunk mode that produced only one offensive touchdown and a season-low 257 yards of total offense.

Quarterback Joe Flacco was intercepted twice and passed for a season-low 186 yards and a 70.1 rating.

"Cam said that was their game and all we had to do was keep it underneath and drive the ball," McClain said. "We got away from it and started getting three-and-outs. When they stop the run, you know that ticks me off."

The running game has been deemphasized recently, too.

After running the ball 17 times for 116 yards in a 27-21 loss to New England, Baltimore only ran the ball 18 times for a season-low 82 yards against the Bengals.

In each game, only Ray Rice was a focal point of the running game as Willis McGahee, who has scored seven touchdowns, only ran the ball one time for minus-2 yards against the Bengals and five times for 11 yards against New England.

When asked about whether the offensive game plan was dictated by the Bengals' defensive scheme, Harbaugh replied: "I'm not even going there. Answering that question would have no value for us. We ran the ball, passed the ball as much as we thought we needed to. We called defenses that we thought we needed to call, the special-teams plays we thought we needed to call to win the game. To look back at it from that perspective publicly has no value for our football team."

Harbaugh predicted that McGahee would be heard from again soon as well as McClain.

"It's hard to get them all in there at the same time," he said. "We could run the wishbone, I guess. We're going to use all those guys. If we're not successful in one week, it's always going to be who didn't play or who didn't get the ball.

"And if we are successful, then it's going to be who didn't play and who didn't get the ball. It's always going to be a conversation that we're going to have, and it's fair. You're going to see plenty of Willis McGahee and Le'Ron McClain and Derrick Mason and all of our guys as weeks go on."

Defensively, the Ravens allowed 403 yards of total offense, 22 first downs and an average of 6.1 yards per play as they allowed Cedric Benson to become the first opposing back to run for 100 yards against them in 40 games.

Plus, three crucial penalties were committed that fueled the Bengals' game-winning drive capped by Carson Palmer's touchdown pass to Andre Caldwell.

"I think our coverage overall even though we've had some plays against us has been really good, it's been really aggressive," Harbaugh said. "There's been a penalty here, they make a play there, but we're not changing the way we're playing. We're very aggressive.

"We're running to the ball. We're playing physical upfront. Are there things we want to do better? Sure. We want to cover better. We want to get better pressure on the quarterback. We want to stop the ball better. We want to do all that stuff better, and we work hard to do that."

It's the kind of devastating setback that could come back to haunt the Ravens, who are tied with the Pittsburgh Steelers for second place in the AFC North.

Potential tiebreakers were at stake.

"We have got to win enough football games to win our division and get in the playoffs, whatever those things are, by the end of the season," Harbaugh said. "And that makes Sunday pretty darn important. Last Sunday was really important, too. We wanted to win that game. We didn't get it done."

The Ravens' task doesn't get any easier this week.

Here comes the Vikings' star-studded backfield headlined by quarterback Brett Favre and running back Adrian Peterson.

"We have to do a better job of tackling and filling the holes," defensive tackle Haloti Ngata said. "We have to tackle better."

After making it to the AFC championship game last season, the Ravens are trying to avoid reaching a 3-3 crossroads heading into their bye week if they lose to the Vikings.

From the standpoint of the mood of the team, Rice, who generated 143 yard of total offense and scored a touchdown against Cincinnati, said that the players remain upbeat about their prospects.

"We came in here in good spirits," Rice said Monday. "If we were 5-0, we'd be riding the high horse right now, but I think this is right where we need to be because we still have things to work on. It's not like we got blown out of the stadium.

"These are games where in the fourth quarter there were one or two plays that if we make the play, we win the game. Those things get corrected. It's not a lack of effort, it's not a lack of intensity, it's not a lack of physical nature. That's the spirit of the team."

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