In the Zone
A fresh look and a soft opponent helped the Ravens end their touchdown drought
The combined weight of a three-game losing streak and five full games without a touchdown—two quarters shy of an NFL record—was felt throughout the Ravens' organization last week. Art Modell called the slump the worst his team had been through in the almost 40 years he has owned the franchise. "I haven't seen a drought like this since the Oklahoma dust bowl," he said. The day after the streak reached 20 quarters, two assistants had to be separated during an argument over blocking assignments.
So how was coach Brian Billick handling it? After spending 2� hours with him while he put together an offensive game plan, you walk out of his office thinking, This guy could make quadruple-bypass surgery sound like trimming an ingrown toenail. That calming influence, plus the fact that Baltimore's opponent was Double A Cincinnati, gave the Ravens confidence going into glistening Paul Brown Stadium. With Trent Dilfer throwing touchdown passes on three consecutive first-half possessions, Baltimore coasted to a 27-7 win.
Rewind to the Tuesday night before the game. In his office Billick was trying to explain why, in the face of doubters, he hadn't lost faith in his players. "When I was hired last year," said Billick, his voice rising a few octaves as he talked, "the team had been 22nd in defense and 26th in offense. There hadn't been a winning season in Baltimore [since the old Browns moved there in 1996]. And coming off an 8-8 season last year, I had to deal with the Ray Lewis situation. [Murder charges against the linebacker that were dropped.]
"Now we're 5-4 with the Number 1 defense in the league. Anyone who looks at our offensive film knows that what we're doing is sound and that we've just hit a tough stretch. When I look back on this year, I know that how we handled this streak, and how we came out of it, will be what I remember more than anything."
When the conversation turned to Billick's use of the beleaguered Dilfer to give the offense a lift, the coach moved to a computer near his desk. "Let me show you something," he said, clicking on a video program that catalogs every play the Ravens and their opponents have run this season. The team's 16 coaches have access to the program, but in the middle of that list of authorized users was one player's name: Trent Dilfer. "He comes in, gets on the computer, does hours of his own film study every week in addition to what we give him," said Billick. "I absolutely love working with Trent. He's ready for every situation."
Billick tried to downplay all that has been ailing the Ravens, but their offensive shortcomings weren't hard to identify. As Broncos director of pro scouting Rick Smith says, "They have problems—from the quarterback's accuracy, to handling pressure, to penalties, to making critical mistakes in the red zone. You can point to a lot of things."
Billick made two notable adjustments against the Bengals. He cut the number of plays in the game plan from about 110 to 88, throwing out the ones that Dilfer didn't like. Billick also decided he would ride rookie Jamal Lewis against the league's 25th-rated rushing defense. Lewis responded with 109 yards on 22 carries.
When it came to the passing attack, Billick decided to keep it simple. On its first touchdown drive Baltimore faced a third-and-seven from the Cincy 14. Offensive coordinator Matt Cavanaugh wanted to call H Angle Return. Wideout Brandon Stokley—who hadn't caught a pass all season and was playing only because the receiver corps had been racked by injuries—would go in motion from left to right, then run a five-yard route over the middle.
Billick was skeptical, but Cavanaugh countered by saying, "It'll put us close for the field goal if he doesn't make it." That was enough to sell Billick. Dilfer delivered the ball perfectly. "Get in! Get it!" Billick yelled, and Stokley did the rest, sprinting to the pylon at the right-front corner of the end zone. Finally, at 1:40 p.m. EST, the 41-day, 61-possession, 21-quarter touchdown drought was over.