Brian Billick’s answer for the Baltimore Ravens’ struggles on offense was to take over the play-calling duties himself. He can’t do anything about the noise his offense must deal with Sunday at the Superdome.
The Ravens hope a week off and Billick’s increased input help them overcome what has been one of the NFL’s best home-field advantages in a matchup with the surprising New Orleans Saints.
After Baltimore suffered back-to-back losses, including a 23-21 defeat to Carolina on Oct. 15, Billick fired offensive coordinator Jim Fassel during the team’s bye week.
Despite the offseason addition of former MVP quarterback Steve McNair, the Ravens (4-2) rank 22nd in the NFL with 18.3 points per game, 29th with 284.5 yards per game and 30th in total first downs with 94.
“Something was necessary,” offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden said of Fassel’s firing. “We were stagnant and couldn’t get things going. It was a little drastic, but something had to be done along those lines.”
New Orleans (5-1) also is coming off a bye, hopeful its momentum has not been deterred after consecutive three-point victories over Tampa Bay and Philadelphia. The 27-24 win on Oct. 15 over an Eagles team which had been 4-1 seemed to cement the Saints’ status as a team to truly be reckoned with, as opposed to one that would revert back to the form it showed last season when it finished 3-13.
The victory also made the Saints 3-0 playing in front of the raucous crowd at the Superdome, which underwent $185 million worth of repairs following Hurricane Katrina. The unbeaten Chicago Bears are the only NFC team with a better record than New Orleans and the only other one that has not lost at home.
“They were fantastic,” first-year Saints coach Sean Payton said of the home fans after the win over Philadelphia. “You just have to understand the impact crowd noise has in that dome on another team.”
It could make Billick’s new role that much tougher, trying to get his play calls out to McNair as his more hands-on approach with the offense sees its first game action.
McNair has one of the league’s worst passer ratings at 64.1, completing less than 57 percent of his throws with more interceptions (seven) than touchdowns (five). He was knocked out of the Carolina game with a concussion and sprained neck after attempting just four passes, but returned to practice on Monday and is expected to play.
He has not been helped by a rushing attack which ranks among the league’s worst, averaging 94.3 yards per game with only two touchdowns—none in the past four games. Jamal Lewis has been held to 118 yards on 39 carries over his last three outings.
While Fassel ended up being the scapegoat for Baltimore’s poor offensive execution, receiver Derrick Mason says much of the blame should be shared among the players.
“They thought they needed to make a change, so they made it. Regardless of who’s calling the plays, the players have to go out there and make it work,” said Mason, who expressed his displeasure with the offense after being held without a catch by Carolina.
“Obviously we’re not changing anything dramatically on offense, so what does that tell you? It tells you the players have to execute and make the gameplan work, somehow, some way. I’m hoping, and I have confidence that regardless of who’s calling the plays, with the week off we can come back and make this offense go.”
Mason, in his second year with Baltimore, has yet to catch a touchdown pass this season while managing only 23 receptions for 310 yards.
New Orleans has found a new star receiver in rookie Marques Colston, who leads the team with 414 yards and four touchdowns.
While the seventh-round pick has been a surprise, first-rounder Reggie Bush has been slowly developing. He could face his toughest challenge against a Ray Lewis-led Ravens run defense which leads the AFC with 74.5 yards allowed per game.
Bush has been limited to 3.0 yards per carry, running for only 196 yards this season, while sharing carries with Deuce McAllister. Bush has been more effective as a receiver for Drew Brees, who has completed 66.7 percent of his passes and is benefitting from good protection while getting rid of the ball quickly.
Brees has been sacked only six times this season, none in the past two weeks.
“He gets rid of it. He’s decisive,” Payton said. “He understands where someone’s free and where he’s losing to the blitz. I think that’s important. That’s a challenge every week.”
Baltimore’s vaunted defense has managed only once sack in three straight games, and gave up 365 yards passing to Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme.
The Saints won 37-25 in 2002 in the last meeting between the teams as McAllister ran for 127 yards and three touchdowns.
The Ravens have never played in New Orleans.
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