Ravens' slumping offense cause (again) for concern
Updated: Friday December 29, 2000 8:33 AM
By Don Banks, Sports Illustrated
When they let themselves dare to dream all summer and fall, this probably isn't how the Baltimore Ravens envisioned it. On that heady Saturday of draft weekend, when longtime team owner Art Modell issued his playoffs-or-else proclamation, few would have quibbled with the 12-4, second-place finish that was to come.
But in the days leading up to the relocated franchise's first playoff appearance, and the city's first postseason game in 23 years, quibbling with the Ravens' success has become almost as popular in Baltimore as, well, crab cakes and Cal Ripken Jr.
Seldom has a team entered the playoffs on more of a roll, while being in a bigger jam.
"We won seven football games in a row," Ravens quarterback Trent Dilfer protested this week, while preparing for a visit from Denver (11-5) in Sunday's AFC wild-card game. "People are still treating us like we just came out of some slump."
Not exactly, Trent. To be more specific, people are still treating the Ravens' offense like it's back in a slump. And some slump it is.
"Boy, when this offense goes cold, it really goes cold," one Ravens front office member lamented this week. "We don't mess around."
Despite gutting out wins the past two weeks at Arizona and at home against the Jets, the Ravens' offense has managed to conjure up the ghosts of October, when the team's five-game touchdown drought produced more pity than points.
With the league's second-best record and those seven consecutive wins, Baltimore is officially the NFL's hottest team as the playoffs open. But then, sometimes statistics don't tell the whole story. To wit:
Suffice to say, no one is posing those annoying "peaking at the right Time" questions this week at the Ravens' Owings Mills team complex. The only Baltimore player on offense who could be described as sharp these days is, you guessed it, that talkative tight end named Shannon.
"Teams will beat you real bad if we play like we did [Sunday]," said Shannon Sharpe, the former Bronco perennial Pro Bowl pick, who wants more than anyone to make a strong showing against Denver. "We will get blown out. Whatever we need to do, we need to get it fixed in a hurry. In the playoffs, if you have a weakness, teams will exploit it.
"I am very concerned and I think everybody in this locker room is concerned offensively."
Perhaps so, but publicly at least, Dilfer and head coach Brian Billick have gone out of their way this week to play down the level of concern that they project.
For a team that already has survived more than a month without a touchdown, a mid-season switch of starting quarterbacks, not to mention an offseason murder trial, what's the big fuss about a little two-game lull on offense?
"I definitely agree with Shannon," Dilfer said. "It's going to take more in the playoffs. I've been there and I recognize it takes more than that. But at the same time, there is incredible value in knowing how to win. We won the last two [games]. You have to look at the positives.
"This should be the happiest time in Baltimore in a long, long time. To try and diminish that and bring up [negatives] doesn't do anybody any good. We know what we have to do. We will make plays in the passing game in the playoffs."
Avoiding a loss has equated to victory in Baltimore
Billick has been open about his team's need for production in the vertical passing game against Denver, in order to offset a Broncos' run defense that ranks seventh in the league (99.9 yards per game). Denver likes to commit an extra man to run defense, daring teams to beat them through the air. The Broncos conversely rank dead last in the NFL in pass defense (246.6).
"They're going to make you throw the ball," Billick said. "Clearly we'll have to throw the ball a lot better than we have in the last two weeks, or it's going to be a tough game for us."
For Dilfer, who took over for the struggling Tony Banks in Week 9, lost his first start, then won seven in a row, the pressures of this week would be nerve-wracking if they were not so familiar. Winning ugly is a theme Dilfer became intimately acquainted with in his six up-and-down seasons in Tampa Bay.
He has been asked before to produce just enough to give his team's stellar defense a chance to win the game, with mixed results. But that is job No. 1 again this week against Denver, which features the AFC's highest-scoring offense (30.3 points per game), the No. 2-ranked running game led by rookie-of-year shoo-in Mike Anderson (1,500 yards rushing), and an NFL-record tying 21 different players with at least one touchdown.
Baltimore's defense, which has surrendered only 11 touchdowns in its past 13 games, set a 16-game NFL record this season with just 165 points allowed. The Ravens also allowed a record-low 60.6 rushing yards per game, led the league with 49 takeaways, and haven't given up 100 yards or more to a rusher in 33 games.
To paraphrase Al Davis, Dilfer's charge is simply: "Just don't lose it, baby."
"There are obviously frustrations around here with the offense's performance," Dilfer said. "If we don't start fast, it's going to be a real challenge to maintain our poise and continue to play well throughout the game.
"The expectations are high, and they should be. But we also need to appreciate where we are. I know I will. Last year was very painful sitting on the sideline as my team [Tampa Bay] went to the playoffs. I am very appreciative to have the opportunity to be here and be able to play through it."
Dilfer may be playing for today and tommorrow
Dilfer is one of 22 Ravens with NFL playoff experience, having started two games for Tampa Bay in 1997, going 1-1. Unfortunately for him, his numbers from those games resemble his most recent two ugly outings: 24-of-62 passing (38.7 percent) for 381 yards, one touchdown and three interceptions.
Looming amid the backdrop is the very real possibility that Dilfer's showing against the Broncos will help determine his playing fate in 2001. A potential free agent, Dilfer has heard the rumors that Billick will be in the market to sign his former Minnesota protégé, Brad Johnson, as a starting quarterback.
A victory against Denver combined with a well-played game by Dilfer could forestall that possibility, and potentially eliminate it. Not that he needs reminding.
"The playoffs are about the team that can go out there with the most confidence and [play] to win," said Dilfer, who will start despite spraining ligaments in his left [non-throwing] wrist against New York. "That's what we need to do offensively."
But that confidence, said Sharpe, must emanate from more places than just Dilfer's facemask.
"The other 10 guys around him haven't had the best games either," Sharpe said. "The past two games, the guys around Trent, we have regressed. We went back to the way we played in October.
"We're not blocking and protecting Trent. It seems like when Trent has time, the throw is not there. Whatever the reason, it's coming at the wrong time this late in the season."
But it's not too late, Billick correctly points out. Having weathered the offensive hell of October, the Ravens, Billick reasons, are virtually disaster proof.
"When you can pull out of one of those streaks, it strengthens you," he said. "Because you've stared into the abyss and you know it can't get much worse than that. It's like, 'What are you going to do to me?' We've been there. We've stared at it and we know what it looks like. And we don't want to go back there."