A less-than-sellout crowd at Cleveland Browns Stadium witnessed the Ravens expose their greatest flaw of the season -- no sense of urgency.
After weeks of downplaying a sloppy season opener and their lackluster play in the fourth quarter, the Ravens watched a season's worth of mistakes catch up to them, suffering a team meltdown in a 27-13 loss yesterday to the Cleveland Browns.
Quarterback Steve McNair couldn't make plays in the red zone. The Ravens' once-feared defense got pushed around up front and allowed big plays in the secondary.
The special teams had untimely lapses, from returner Yamon Figurs' fumble to a costly offside penalty on a missed field-goal attempt by the Browns. Even the usually automatic Matt Stover, fresh off a game-winning kick last week, missed two field-goal tries.
"This is a pretty low point for us," said tight end Todd Heap, who is unsure about his status after injuring his hamstring at the end of the third quarter. "You think how the game went, and not a whole lot went our way. Those are the most frustrating games when you don't even put ourselves in position to win."
The Ravens had the top-ranked defense last season but they continue to lose their aura of dominance on that side of the ball. They gave up three touchdowns on the Browns' first five drives, including the game's opening series (a rarity over the years for this defense).
The Ravens ran the ball only 20 times against the NFL's second-worst run defense and scored a touchdown once on four trips inside the Browns' 20-yard line.
The Ravens' third loss in their past four trips to Cleveland was best summed up by coach Brian Billick.
"We just got our butts beat, plain and simple," he said. "What happens when you get your butt whupped like that, you try to correct it and move on to the next game. There's no [more] magical answers than that."
The turning point came in a four-minute span in the first quarter.
After Derek Anderson's 2-yard touchdown pass to Joe Jurevicius on the first drive, the Ravens answered by marching to the Cleveland 27-yard line. But McNair was intercepted while throwing to Heap, who was double-covered.
One play later, Browns receiver Braylon Edwards soundly beat cornerback Chris McAlister for a 78-yard touchdown catch, putting the Browns up 14-0. When Edwards caught the ball, he had 5 yards on McAlister.
"I just didn't play my man," McAlister said. "He made the better play."
The teams traded field goals in the second quarter before the Ravens messed up mightily again.
Figurs, who scored a touchdown on a punt return last week, fumbled a kickoff after a hit by former Raven Darnell Dinkins, giving the Browns the ball at the Ravens' 31.
The Browns eventually missed a field-goal attempt, but McAlister was called for a neutral-zone infraction.
Given a first down and a second chance, the Browns increased their lead to 24-3 when Jamal Lewis scored a questionable touchdown on a 1-yard dive. Replays seemed to indicate Lewis didn't reach the goal line when he stretched his arms to hold the ball out over the pile.
Billick wanted to challenge the touchdown and threw the red flag. But the referee said Billick didn't toss the flag until after the Browns snapped the ball for the extra-point kick.
Asked if he thought he threw the flag in time, Billick said: "The officiating matched our play."
The Ravens had a shot to close the deficit late in the first half, but that's when red-zone troubles resurfaced.
Three times the Ravens passed the ball from the 11-yard line and three times McNair failed to hit his receiver in the end zone. He overthrew Daniel Wilcox and Demetrius Williams and then was short on a pass to Heap.
That epitomized the day for the Ravens' offense.
The Ravens ran the ball only four times on 12 plays in the red zone, even though Willis McGahee gained 104 yards. They instead put the ball in the hands of McNair, who was 4-for-8 for 28 yards inside the 20-yard line against the Browns' defense, which had allowed an NFL-worst 11 touchdown passes.
"Our main focus going into next week and the rest of the season is the red zone," said McNair, who set career highs for completions (34) and attempts (53) and said he wasn't bothered by his groin injury. "We drive the ball on anybody from the 20 to the 20. But we left 35 points on the board [today]. We just have to concentrate more and ... we have to put [more] into the game plan."
While the Ravens could overcome red-zone difficulties in previous seasons, they need to score as many points as possible these days with their defense struggling. The only bright spot for the defense yesterday was holding Lewis, their longtime running back, to 64 yards on 23 carries (a 2.8-yard average).
During the game, linebacker Ray Lewis seemed frustrated and had several talks -- some of them animated -- with coaches.
Asked if he was concerned about the defense, Ray Lewis said: "Sooner of later, you can't trick everybody. Line up and play football. That's it. Line up and beat the man in front of you. There ain't nothing to be concerned about. Bottom line, sooner or later you have to line up and beat the man in front of you. If you're doing that, you've got nothing to hold your head down about."
Lewis then added: "When you give the turnovers, when you give the short field [and] when you do all those things, you have to ask yourself as a team: Were you coming to win?"
Over the next three weeks, the Ravens play the San Francisco 49ers, St. Louis Rams and Buffalo Bills (who are a combined 3-9), and they can't afford another loss knowing the toughest part of their schedule is in November and December.
"At some point, you have to have a sense of urgency," linebacker Bart Scott said. "I'm not one to think we're 2-2 and we're OK. You say that all year and then you're sitting outside of the playoffs, saying, 'What happened?'
"Every game is important. Every game could mean the difference between making the playoffs and home-field advantage. We have to tighten these things up because we have a lot more quality opponents coming through."