By Jamison Hensley
September 13, 2004
CLEVELAND - Before the Ravens can get back on the path to the Super Bowl, they must first map out how to reach the red zone.
Before they set their sights on another AFC North title, they have to make sure they keep their eyes on opposing receivers.
The 20-3 upset loss to the Cleveland Browns yesterday inauspiciously opened the season as well as raised some pressing questions about the team's identity.
In giving up big plays defensively and not giving the ball to running back Jamal Lewis, the Ravens went against the trademark formula that made them a championship-caliber team.
"We definitely didn't play Ravens football today," defensive end Tony Weaver said. "You don't want to say this is just Week 1 because it counts. It still hurts. You want to take that pain and carry it the rest of the season, using it as motivation."
It was a pain that rippled throughout the somber locker room.
Their offense failed to move the ball past Cleveland's 24-yard line and scored its fewest points in two years. Their special teams lost the field-position battle with poor kickoffs, returns and penalties. Even their rugged defense blinked at the most critical of times, smudging an otherwise spectacular effort.
After dominating play on defense in the first half, the Ravens had little margin of error in the second, in which safeties Ed Reed and Will Demps alternated lapses in a three-minute period.
Reed jumped a slant route after a pump fake from Browns quarterback Jeff Garcia, allowing receiver Quincy Morgan to slip behind the defense unguarded and catch a 46-yard touchdown pass. It broke a 3-3 tie with 24 seconds left in the third quarter, as well as the Ravens' invincibility on defense.
On Cleveland's next series, Garcia - who had skipped short passes at his receivers' feet at an alarming rate earlier in the third quarter - threw a high-arcing, 51-yard toss to a wide-open Andre Davis. Like Reed, Demps stood flat-footed as Garcia scrambled in the pocket, letting Davis run free down the sideline.
The Browns finished that drive with a 25-yard field goal, extending their lead to 13-3 and essentially putting the game away midway through the fourth quarter.
It was a troubling turn of events for the Ravens, who ranked second in the NFL last season in fewest big plays allowed (only 33 plays of 20 yards or more). Outside of those two plays, the Ravens held Cleveland to 153 yards of total offense.
While both Reed and Demps couldn't explain the mistakes - Reed said, "I've got a bad memory" - Ravens coach Brian Billick was in no mood to hear them anyway.
"That should not happen with this group because they have been together long enough, and they know how to communicate," Billick said. "It happened in the preseason a couple of times, and it happened here in the opener. It goes beyond coincidence, certainly. We cannot just dismiss them and say, 'That is just the breaks of the game.' That is unacceptable."
The struggles of the offense were not as clear-cut.
Jamal Lewis, the reigning NFL rushing champion, was held to 57 yards against the same defense he rung up 500 yards on in two games last season. It was nearly a year ago when Lewis set an NFL record with 295 yards against the Browns.
But was Lewis shut down by Cleveland or was he slowed down by a lack of carries?
He was limited to 20 attempts, lowering the Ravens' record to 2-10 over the past two years when he has 20 or fewer carries.
"You knew that they were going to stack up against the run, so we knew we had to be balanced against it but still not abandon the run," Billick said. "Nor did we."
The difference with Lewis yesterday compared to his usual dominant play against the Browns was his ability to break away from the defense.
Last year, he pulled away for six runs of 23 yards or more. Yesterday, he didn't have a run of 10 yards.
Asked if he received enough carries, Lewis said, "I was pretty much satisfied."
It wasn't the same Lewis or offensive line. Two of the five starters - All-Pro left tackle Jonathan Ogden (sprained knee) and center Mike Flynn (broken collarbone) - were sidelined, and backups Ethan Brooks and Casey Rabach didn't provide the same physical push.
"When you lose two of your starting linemen, things are going to be a little different," Lewis said. "But we'll get used to it."
The absences on the line affected quarterback Kyle Boller, too.
Brooks was repeatedly beaten by Browns end Kenard Lang, who tied a career-high with three sacks. He also forced a fumble.
The pressure never allowed Boller to get into a comfort zone. He was wildly inaccurate and finished 22-for-38 for 191 yards.
One of Boller's two interceptions - which came when he lofted a pass to a covered Kevin Johnson - and his fumble resulted in all of the Browns' 10 fourth-quarter points.
"I don't think Kyle Boller is the reason we didn't win today," Billick said.
The Ravens also had to defend their play-calling.
Trailing 3-0 in the second quarter, the Ravens chose to throw instead of run on third-and-two at their 49-yard line. Besides not seeing tight end Todd Heap uncovered 15 yards downfield, Boller overthrew receiver Travis Taylor down the middle of the field.
"If we complete that, it was a good throw," Billick said. "If Travis can open up and get that, it's a brilliant play and a brilliant call."
No such debate exists, the Ravens said, about their mind-set, which will be tested Sunday in their home opener against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
"We still have all the confidence in the world," Weaver said. "This was a minor setback. We're going to get it back on track."
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