Back in Stride
The Ravens showed they haven't lost their swagger with a convincing win in Denver
Contrary to popular belief, the Ravens were not in grave danger last week. Yes, they already knew that their offense would be walking a tightrope all season. Yes, they realized quarterback Elvis Grbac was no Johnny Unitas. Yes, they missed running back Jamal Lewis in a huge way. Still, a loss to the perennially lowly Bengals the previous Sunday, which most teams would have found dispiriting, was swatted away like a gnat. "We were over it," Baltimore defensive tackle Tony Siragusa said last Friday, "by the time we got out of the shower after the game."
Like most champions, the Ravens have an aura about them. You can feel it when you are around the players, and you can feel it when you are around their coach, Brian Billick, a man who has taken self-confidence to a new level. Last Saturday night, on the eve of a gut-check game in Denver against the Broncos—the AFC team that figures to be Baltimore's biggest roadblock to a return trip to the Super Bowl—Billick sat in his hotel suite, pondering what he knew was coming: spread formations, with four-receiver and empty-backfield sets, designed to confound the Ravens' impenetrable rushing defense. His lack of concern was evident. " Chicago did it against us in Week 1 and couldn't piss a drop," said Billick. " Cincinnati beat us because we turned it over six times; when the Bengals spread the field, they got nothing done. Really, what has anyone seen the last two games that leads someone to believe we're going downhill?"
How about a sputtering offense? In Denver, though, that offense did just enough to assuage the fears that come with a 1-1 start. A moribund running game stopped and started its way to 112 yards. Grbac backed Billick's faith in him with two perfectly thrown touchdown passes. The defense was state of the art, as usual, holding Denver's vaunted offense to 61 rushing yards and forcing Brian Griese, the NFL's highest-rated passer coming into the game, into his first two interceptions of the year. The result was a 20-13 victory, the kind of win that led Billick to slap tight end Shannon Sharpe on the shoulder pads as they entered the locker room and say, "It ain't the Super Bowl, but it ain't bad."
The Ravens have that aura again. The mindset is, We expect good things. We might lose a game or two, but that's life in the NFL. We won't lose when the games get very big or when the season's on the line. Erik Williams is familiar with that mentality. He is Baltimore's new right tackle, a 33-year-old free agent who, after a three-ring career in Dallas, was brought in when Leon Searcy suffered a torn left triceps during training camp. "I see a championship swagger on this team that I saw in Dallas," Williams said after Sunday's win. " Michael Irvin led it in Dallas. Ray Lewis leads it here. You need that swagger, that confidence, when every team is gunning for you."
Baltimore will struggle to score, as it did last season when it went five games in October without a touchdown. Terry Allen, the 33-year-old running back who was brought in to replace Jamal Lewis, showed spark against the Broncos (19 carries, 65 yards), but the Ravens will have to grind out a meager existence on the ground while relying on Grbac. On the first snap against Denver, Grbac put Baltimore in a hole, throwing an interception that tackle Chester McGlockton returned to the Ravens' three-yard line. Griese capitalized with a scoring pass to tight end Duane Carswell.
However, in the last 21 minutes, Grbac came through. Trailing 13-6 and facing a third-and-six from the Denver 20 midway through the third quarter, the Ravens lined up three receivers to the right and wideout Qadry Ismail to the left, isolated against cornerback Denard Walker. As Ismail battled Walker down the left sideline, Grbac thought he saw a sliver of an opening over Ismail's left shoulder. "Beautiful touch pass," Ismail said. "The kind where the quarterback could throw it hard and nobody would catch it, or he could put it up there so the receiver could make the play." Ismail grabbed the scoring pass to tie the game at 13-13.
Six minutes into the fourth quarter, on a third down from the Denver three, Grbac dropped back under a heavy rush. Wideout Travis Taylor was supposed to run a fade toward the right corner of the end zone. "But he looks back at me, like he's got the corner beat," said Grbac, still excited about the play 45 minutes after the game, "and I throw it right then. Sort of like two guys playing basketball on the playground. He looks at me, I know he wants the ball, I get it to him. Pretty easy."
It's called chemistry. It's what the Baltimore offense began to build as the Denver summer turned to fall. If that bonding continues along a hard road—the Ravens host the desperate Titans on Sunday, then travel to Green Bay the following week—we could be looking at a two-time Super Bowl champion.
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