The Ravens may have found their quarterback of the future yesterday, but they still couldn't overcome the problems of the past.
After nearly six weeks of training camp and four preseason games, the Ravens have not found answers to their erratic special teams play and inconsistent offense, two factors that played prominent roles in their 23-20 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers at PSINet Stadium.
The Ravens (0-2) kept the crowd of 68,965 on edge with a six-play, 72-yard drive that was capped by a 19-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Stoney Case, filling in for the benched Scott Mitchell, to Qadry Ismail. The scoring play, with 1: 22 left, tied the game 20-20, but Pittsburgh rookie Kris Brown kicked a 36-yard field goal as time expired to win.
The field goal was set up by a short kickoff from Matt Stover to the 13-yard line following Ismail's touchdown. Pittsburgh's Will Blackwell returned the kick up the middle 37 yards to the 50-yard line with 1: 15 left.
Some of the Ravens players said there were only nine defensive players on the first play following Blackwell's return, when Pittsburgh quarterback Kordell Stewart completed a 12-yard pass to Courtney Hawkins. The Steelers ran three more plays before sending out Brown.
"I don't know. There was a lot of confusion out there," said Ravens defensive tackle Tony Siragusa. "Some guys were upset because of the long runback, and then I heard there were only nine or 10 guys out there. We have to correct those kind of mistakes if we ever want to think about the playoffs.
"We're 0-2 now, at the bottom. I've been in this game too long, I don't want to lose anymore. At the end of the season, you take a look back and see you're only two games out, and this was one that you could have won."
Ravens coach Brian Billick said: "It was very disappointing to come back the way we did, and then lose. What we have to do is correct those things and move on. We're going to have to look at special teams, what we did, what we're trying to do and how we're trying to do it. It will get corrected by player or coach."
Special teams, though, is only one problem. Quarterback is another. Just who is the starter? Nobody knows. And Billick isn't telling until "the appropriate time." But he apparently has moved off his "take a leap of faith with me" comments about Mitchell as his starting quarterback.
The fans started booing Mitchell about five minutes into the game when he was pressured out of the pocket and tackled for a 1-yard gain by Pittsburgh linebacker Jason Gildon on third down of the Ravens' second possession. Only minutes earlier, Mitchell had thrown behind receiver Jermaine Lewis and his pass was intercepted by cornerback Dewayne Washington at the Ravens' 35, which set up an 8-yard touchdown run by Stewart for a 7-0 lead with 10: 57 left in the quarter.
Mitchell completed seven of 16 passes for 48 yards and was replaced by Case with 9: 18 left in the third quarter. Billick said he made the move because the Ravens needed more mobility at the position. But Mitchell was having a second straight bad game and even had problems completing short passes in the flat.
The Ravens started drives at the Steelers' 49, 31 and the Ravens' 44 in the second quarter and one at the Ravens' 35 in the third quarter with Mitchell. The Ravens scored only three points on those drives. Mitchell was more elusive in his getaway from reporters yesterday than he was in the pocket. He was unavailable to comment.
And for one of the few times since Billick became head coach in January, he had very little to say about who would be his No. 1 quarterback next week against the Cleveland Browns. Or who would be his backup. This marks the second straight year Mitchell has been benched in the second game of the season.
"I'll let you know at the appropriate time," said Billick about the order of his quarterbacks.
Case, signed by the team on Aug. 17, was rusty at first possibly from taking few snaps last week during two days of rainstorms that forced the Ravens to have walk-through practices inside the team's weightlifting facility. But Case came on to complete seven of 15 passes for 130 yards, including the touchdown pass to Ismail. He also had a 26-yard completion to Justin Armour, a 24-yarder to Jermaine Lewis and led drives of 51 and 72 yards in the fourth quarter.
He did have one major mistake. He forgot to read a blitz from the left side and was sacked by right outside linebacker Carlos Emmons and fumbled, which set up a Brown 32-yard field goal with 4: 16 left in the third quarter.
"I'm real disappointed," Case said. "It took me too long to get going. I was thinking too much out there. We were down and Coach obviously had confidence in me and put me in. It was his decision. If the coach says, 'Stoney, you're going to start,' I'll be ready. I'm always ready. I prepare myself like I am the starting quarterback whether I am or not."
Case was more prepared than the special teams, which are running out of excuses. During preseason, the Ravens blamed the lethargic special teams play on players who weren't going to make the roster. And then the players said they were getting adjusted to new special teams coach Russ Purnell. But the Ravens had nine players on the punt return team one time yesterday, and 10 at another.
Blackwell had his own reasons for the Ravens' inept performance. He had another kickoff return for 32 yards that set up another Brown 28-yard field goal with 2: 39 left in the game that put the Steelers ahead 20-13. After the game, he questioned the Ravens' strategy of having their kickoff team criss-cross while running down the field, and said the middle was open after he hit the wedge.
He also questioned some of the Ravens' toughness.
"We have big guys up in front, and when they get up a head of steam, [opponents] don't want to run into them," Blackwell said. "If [opponents] run around them, I'm going to run through it [gap]."
Ravens special teams captain Bennie Thompson also challenged his teammates.
"Everybody has to be accountable about doing their jobs," Thompson said. "I just don't know if everybody is doing that. I don't think some guys around here take special teams seriously. Russ needs to find out who these guys are and get them out of here. If he doesn't, this is going to continue to happen."
The special teams' problems helped spoil Case's Ravens debut. But Case got an endorsement of sorts from running back Errict Rhett. "A lot of times, you can't blame it on the quarterback," Rhett said. "In this game, we needed a change like that. Sometimes, you need to change the atmosphere."
Rhett provided a change in the offense yesterday filling in for Priest Holmes, who Billick said looked uncomfortable in pre-game warm-ups wearing a brace for his sprained knee. Rhett, who according to players took most of the repetitions with the first unit last week, ran for 101 yards on 22 carries and had a 2-yard touchdown run in the first period.
Asked if Rhett would start over Holmes next week, Billick replied: "I'll let you know at the appropriate time."
But the team's ability to run was an encouraging sign and could take a lot of pressure off Case if he becomes the starter. The offensive line wants to run the ball more.
"We don't know who our quarterback is going to be from quarter to quarter, but our job is to block for whomever is throwing the rock," said right tackle Harry Swayne. "It was nice to run block, it was exciting. We ran enough today that the defense had to take more than just a peek at us."
Maybe the offense is starting to come into focus a little more. The Ravens' defense did more than carry the team yesterday holding the Steelers to 270 yards of total offense, only 121 passing. The Ravens held running back Jerome Bettis to 46 yards on 16 attempts, and Stewart was 18-for-27 in passing for 138 yards.
But that was not enough, not when a team has poor special teams play, wastes good field position (average drive started at the Ravens' 37) and plays musical quarterbacks.
"We wanted to play the game with passion and we did all the way through," Billick said. "But we can't turn the ball over and we have to be efficient on offense. Our defense played well, certainly well enough for us to win.
"But this team hasn't played up to expectation and you have to understand that my expectations are always going to be very high."
Next for Ravens
Opponent: Cleveland Browns
Site: PSINet Stadium
When: Sunday, 1 p.m.
TV/Radio: Ch. 13/WJFK (1300 AM), WLIF (101.9 FM)
Series: First meeting
Line: Ravens by 12
Tickets: Sold out
Yesterday's loss dropped the Ravens' all-time AFC central record to 6-19.
Opp. W-L Home Road
Pittsburgh 1-6 1-3 0-3
Jacksonville 0-6 0-3 0-3
Tennessee 2-4 1-2 1-2
Cincinnati 3-3 2-1 1-2
Totals 6-19 4-9 2-10