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Turnover turnaround for Ravens

THE BALTIMORE SUN

MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- Create turnovers and don't turn the ball over.

That's usually a winning formula in the NFL, and it worked for the Ravens yesterday.

They didn't have a turnover and they caused the Tennessee Oilers to turn it over five times -- four fumbles and an interception.

The Ravens, who were minus-four in turnover ratio (second-lowest in the AFC and fourth-worst in the league) while going 2-1, turned the plus-five ratio into a stunning 36-10 victory.

It was so convincing that coach Ted Marchibroda, who last year kept the team together during a dozen losses, was quick to warn his team against overconfidence.

Looking at the coach's track record, though, it's easy to think this could be the start of another Marchibroda Miracle. He is the coach who took over a 2-12 Baltimore Colts team in 1974 and turned it into a 10-4 division champion in 1975 when they became the first team to go from last to first. In his Indianapolis Colts tenure, he took a team that was 1-15 in 1991 and improved it to 9-7 in 1992.

It was particularly significant that this was the Ravens' second division victory. Last year, they went 0-4 against the Cincinnati Bengals and Oilers, who then were in Houston. This season, they're 2-0 against those teams.

The Oilers, who were a missed field goal away starting the season 2-0, were dominated as Vinny Testaverde passed at will and the Ravens' defense handcuffed quarterback Steve McNair.

Another thing the Ravens have going for them is a fifth-place schedule. Green Bay, Dallas, San Francisco, Denver and New England all have one thing in common: They don't play the Ravens.

If this keeps up, the Ravens can start talking about the playoffs.

Highlights and lowlights of the most lopsided win in the Ravens' two-year history:

Turning point: Leading 7-3 on their third possession late in the first quarter, the Oilers marched from their 37 to the Ravens' 37 on six straight passes. It seemed time to start running Eddie George. But McNair failed to get the ball off in time on the final play of the first quarter, putting the Oilers in a first-and-15 at the Ravens' 42. The Ravens came with the blitz and McNair threw it right into Jamie Sharper's arms. The Ravens went in to score to take a 10-7 lead they never gave up.

Game plan: The Oilers came out with a strange game plan. They had gotten big performances from George the first two games, but passed on first down eight of 11 times to start the game. Two of those plays were turnovers, and the Oilers never recovered. Sharper said Tennessee was afraid to run on the Ravens. The Oilers said they wanted balance. Whatever it was, it didn't work. Once the Oilers got behind, they had to pass, and George ran just 10 times for 40 yards.

Testaverde file: The Oilers counted on stopping the run and trying to get to Testaverde with the blitz. That left their corners one-on-one and Testaverde picked their defense apart, passing for 318 yards -- including 263 yards to his three wide receivers -- and three touchdowns. The line gave him plenty of time to throw and allowed just one sack. He even threw the ball away twice instead of taking a sack. What a difference from last year, when Testaverde was picked off three times by the Oilers at the Astrodome.

Return: Jermaine Lewis, sidelined the past two games except for fair-catching a punt, made a big difference as he hauled in eight passes for 124 yards and a touchdown. He's the third threat the club was looking for when it made that ill-fated signing of Andre Rison three years ago, and he's a lot cheaper as a fifth-round pick.

Mismatch: Tomur Barnes had the difficult assignment of trying to cover Derrick Alexander one-on-one and was burned for 25- and 5-yard touchdown passes.

Running game: Who needs one? The Ravens' final stats of 89 yards on 28 carries sounded respectable, but much of that came when they were sitting on the lead in the final quarter. They had just eight runs for 26 yards in the first half and 14 for 39 yards after three quarters. But the passing game worked so well that they didn't miss the run.

Protection: The offensive line did an outstanding job of protecting Testaverde, who had time to pick out the most open receivers. The only major mishap came in the third quarter when center Quentin Neujahr, returning to the starting lineup, was caught for holding to nullify a touchdown pass to Lewis. The Ravens settled for a field goal, then ran the same play for a 16-yard touchdown pass to Lewis in the final quarter.

Best catch: Michael Jackson leaped and caught a 40-yard pass at the Oilers' 8 in the second quarter to set up a touchdown.

Best kiss: Owner Art Modell gave Marchibroda a big hug and a kiss after the game. Will this become a ritual the way Saints owner Tom Benson used a twirl his umbrella on the sidelines after a win? Marchibroda, incidentally, couldn't remember ever being kissed by the late Colts owner Bob Irsay.

Air McNair: He was grounded and the Oilers have to worry that he's still developing slowly in his third year. He made several bad throws, got a ball knocked out of his hands and never seemed in command even though he was playing against a secondary that usually gets torched. He played much better against the Ravens in the season finale last year.

Big hit: The Oilers had marched from their 15 to their 44 on their first series when Rob Burnett sacked McNair and knocked the ball out of his arms. Tony Siragusa picked it up but was injured while being tackled after a 7-yard run.

Jinx?: Opposing kickers, who made 28 of 31 field-goal attempts against the Ravens last year, are having problems this year. Al Del Greco made a 45-yarder, but then bounced a 41-yard attempt off the right upright. Opposing kickers have made just three of 10 attempts this year.

Empty seats: Last year, the Oilers drew only 20,082 for their game at the Astrodome against the Ravens. They did even worse in Memphis, a town still bitter at its snub in NFL expansion. Only 17,737 tickets were sold and there may have been fewer in the stands. The Oilers, who are headed for Nashville in two years, didn't give them much to cheer about.

Injury factor: Going into the season, the Ravens were worried that the tender knees of Siragusa and tight end Eric Green might not hold up, so it was no surprise they were both injured yesterday. The surprise was that their knees weren't the problem. Siragusa, who's probably out for a couple of weeks, strained an ankle tendon and Green pulled a hamstring.

Looking ahead: The Ravens take their 3-1 record to San Diego to play the 1-3 Chargers and have a good shot at winning their third straight road game to bring a 4-1 record into the next home game against Pittsburgh. The challenge now is not to look ahead to the Steelers game, which shapes up as the Ravens' first big game.

Pub Date: 9/22/97

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