Painfully obvious

Jason Cole
Yahoo! SportsOctober 11, 2007

OWINGS MILLS, Md. – Baltimore Ravens coach Brian Billick can be humorously defiant, even as he admits to a problem so obvious that not even Marion Jones could deny.

"We have to come up with big plays," Billick said. "But I don't want my quarterback – on a team that plays great defense, that has good balance, that has a good completion percentage, that's running the ball fairly well and has the good third-down conversion – forcing the ball downfield because some slap (expletive) thinks that we need to throw (deep patterns) up every route. It doesn't make any sense."

What doesn't make sense is that a team 11th in yardage (346.2 per game) is only 20th in scoring (17.6 per game). So as Billick resists taking drastic measures, his office is filled with tools to fix the offense: a desktop computer loaded with coaching programs, a laptop with stats and a big-screen TV with a DVD player.

"I'm very conscious of the fact that we're going to have to be more explosive. … In most measurable ways, I'm very pleased with where we're at … (but) we haven't had the big plays," he said.

In the present NFL, not having big plays is like asking Britney Spears to run a day-care center. It's just not going to work, as Billick admits. The Ravens are two games from their bye week. After that comes a remaining slate featuring the Pittsburgh Steelers twice, New England Patriots, Indianapolis Colts, Seattle Seahawks and San Diego Chargers.

This is not 2000, when the Ravens rode their defense to a title.

"That 2000 team, as good as it was, we didn't face anybody like it does today …," Billick said. "In order for us to make a run and be as good as we think we can be, we're going to have to be more productive. … We need to get more explosive. But within parameters that are realistic. To just launch up a bunch of nine routes doesn't get it done. That's not what teams that are good do."

The statistics make the situation obvious. While Baltimore is second in the league in time of possession (34:28) and first in drives of 10 plays or longer, it is last in plays of 20 yards or longer. Moreover, the Ravens are averaging only 5.9 yards per pass attempt, well below the 7.5 they desire. Both Derrick Mason and Mark Clayton are averaging less than 10 yards per reception.

In short, there is a shortage of plays that strike fear in a defense or that can change field position enough to change the outcome of a game.

"We've got to keep working to get everybody on the same page with that," quarterback Steve McNair said. "You have to have the big plays in this league, but you have to have that chemistry to make that happen."

The intriguing question is how that gets solved. The Ravens don't have a lot of deep threats. Wide receiver Demetrius Williams, a fourth-round draft pick in 2006, has the speed and height (6-foot-2) to become a vertical threat. But beyond that, Mason is a pure possession receiver and Clayton is a possession guy with enough speed to break a run after the catch.

Tight end Todd Heap is a terrific receiver, but doesn't have breakaway speed. Same goes for No. 2 tight end Daniel Wilcox. Thus, timing and execution are paramount. Problem is, all of them plus McNair have been hurt.

In fact, the offensive line featured three rookies for 40 plays last weekend against the San Francisco 49ers because of injuries. Just having McNair get through the game without being sacked was an accomplishment.

In the case of Clayton, more than one thing hurts. Start with a high ankle sprain, throw in an aching Achilles' tendon and then finish it off with a hyper-extended big toe and you have a recipe for failed execution.

"We're really good at moving the ball downfield, controlling the ball, but the big plays just aren't happening," Clayton said. "When we get into the red zone, we're not scoring touchdowns. It's very frustrating, but I feel like the timing is coming."

Certainly, the opportunity is there. On Sunday, as Baltimore struggled to a 9-7 victory over San Francisco, the Ravens had a second-and-11 from their own 35-yard line on the opening play of the second quarter.

Clayton, who didn't practice much last week, was supposed to run a deep in. Instead, he ran a hook. The offensive line protected well, and the middle of the field opened up as the 49ers dropped into a coverage with only one safety deep.

If Clayton had run the in, McNair would have had an easy throw and Clayton probably would gained at least 25 yards to the 49ers 40. Instead, McNair had to pull the ball down. Clayton realized the mistake and tried to break to the middle, but pass rushers closed in on McNair and forced an awkward throw that fell incomplete. Two plays later, Baltimore was punting.

"In my business, that's a (expletive) play because it didn't work," Billick said. "That's it, the bottom line. But I look at that and I think I can reasonably expect that we won't screw that up the next time we do it. … I think we're OK.

"I think that if we can eke out a couple of wins in the next two games and get everybody healthy after the bye, we can have the kind of team that will execute those plays."

Billick also believes improved execution from the players will come as a result of increased communication from the coaching staff.

A year ago at this time, Billick fired offensive coordinator Jim Fassel, a long-time friend, because Fassel was spending more time looking for a head coaching job than he was doing the job he had. Billick took over the play-calling in the process. He also took the lead in the game planning, running meetings and, in the process, creating an environment where all the coaches could contribute.

"This is not some, 'This is the way I see it boys, this is what we're going to do.' It's a constant, 'What do you think of this? What do you like here?' " Billick said.

However, it's been an adjustment for the other coaches.

"It took some guys some time to get used to because Brian is old-fashioned about it," said Ravens offensive line coach Chris Foerster, who also worked with Billick at Stanford and with the Minnesota Vikings. "He wants to get in there and argue and fight and have guys defend their point. It's one thing when you do that with the offensive coordinator, a guy who is your peer. But when you do it with the head coach, there are a lot of guys who worry about whether it's going to come back against them."

But Billick said he does everything possible for everyone to know that it's not personal. He wants the free flow of ideas to ready the staff for game day, when it's crucial to find answers on the fly.

"If they don't know that, then how do they, during the course of the game, come to me and say, 'You know coach, I know we were going to draw a lot on second-and-10, but they're not coming up the field, they're two-gapping more, so I don't think the draw game is very good.' Now, that's great information, but how do they share that with me if they don't know that the plan and know they can come to me with an idea," Billick said.

For now, the problem to solve is obvious and important.

"We don't have those big plays and you see how people are playing us," Foerster said. "They're crowding us and it's going to make it harder as the season goes on. We have to get some big chunks."

Whether that happens remains to be seen, but at least a system to solve it appears to be in place.