Next call for offense: patience


PITTSBURGH - The Ravens didn't win any offensive style points in yesterday's 16-0 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers in the season opener at Three Rivers Stadium, and it probably won't get any prettier for a couple of games.

With two new tight ends, virtually two new fullbacks, an inexperienced right guard and a rookie wide receiver and running back, there will be more dropped passes and missed scoring opportunities until the members of the offense become familiar with one another.

So, expect few more games like yesterday's, in which the Ravens converted only five of 16 third-down situations, and had to settle for field goals of 23, 26 and 33 yards from Matt Stover.

Expect games in which the Ravens have to rely on their great defense and, hopefully, get more mileage out of their running game, which netted 140 yards on 36 attempts yesterday.

Say goodbye to Billick Ball for a few weeks and hello to whatever works at the time.

The Ravens went through a similar process last season. They won six of their last nine games as the offense averaged 25.4 points and 322 yards per game, up from an average of 13.5 points and 268.4 yards in the first seven.

The team finished 8-8 and was virtually eliminated from the playoff picture on the next-to-last weekend of the regular season. But if the offense can jell sooner in 2000, the team won't have to make such a hard playoff run at the end.

The wins should come sooner.

"We just kind of grinded it out today," said fullback Obafemi Ayanbadejo. "We got the running game going early and we stayed with it. It was effective, but we have to be more productive as far as points.

"I went back and watched the film from last year at this time, and we're much improved. Things will jump out at us as we watch the film, and it's going to get better for us down the road, especially in the passing game."

"When they give us one or two turnovers inside the red zone, we've got to come away with seven points, not three," said Ravens tight end Shannon Sharpe. "We can't win with 16 points each game, and once we realize that, we'll be OK."

The Ravens were conservative by design yesterday, a great game plan by Compu Coach. This was the season opener, played on the road in front of an anticipated hostile crowd against a team that causes all kinds of offensive problems because it blitzes so much.

The conservative approach was never more evident than in the closing minute of the second quarter. On second and nine from the Pittsburgh 9 with 30 seconds remaining, Billick had Priest Holmes run up the middle, which resulted in no gain. Quarterback Tony Banks underthrew receiver Qadry Ismail on the next play and Stover came in to convert a 26-yard field goal.

But Billick, not passing on second down? Billick, not taking two shots at the end zone for a touchdown? Didn't this man invent the forward pass?

"We didn't open it up a lot," said Billick. "Because of their aggressive packages and nature of their defense, which is to blitz a lot, our game plan was to keep our protection tight. We knew this game probably wasn't going to be a highly efficient game for Tony."

"We were playing a little conservative, [Tony] Dungy ball," said Billick, whose team did score on a 53-yard touchdown pass from Banks to Ismail in the first quarter. "That's OK. We were playing to our defense and we'll do whatever it takes to win."

It worked. Pittsburgh had only 223 yards of total offense and had only one serious scoring opportunity in the game. The Steelers' forte is running the ball, yet they had only 30 yards rushing, averaging 1.7 per carry.

The defense kept Pittsburgh off the field and the Ravens held the ball for 35 minutes, nearly a 10-minute possession advantage.

But the Ravens know they have to get some timing problems in the passing game worked out. Banks completed 18 of 32 passes for 199 yards, but besides underthrowing Ismail on a slant-in pattern that might have gone for a touchdown in the first half, he missed rookie Travis Taylor on a similar pattern in the second.

Twice in the second half, Banks miscommunicated with tight ends Ben Coates and Sharpe and threw behind them when they were wide open across the middle. He also misfired in throwing to a wide-open Ayanbadejo down the right sideline on a long pass in the third quarter.

At times, Banks seemed to lock onto Ismail way too early on some passing plays and failed to connect on some other possible big plays, or "explosives" in Billick's language.

The Ravens, though, are being patient.

Ismail said: "Obviously, [Tony] needs to get better at the timing of the tight-end position as far as inside throws, which is going to help us against teams like Jacksonville, Miami and Washington. But he'll get better as time goes on. He'll be licking his chops back there."

Taylor, one of the team's two first-round draft picks and the No. 10 selection overall, didn't play badly. He had four receptions for 50 yards, including one for 28. He dropped a 21-yard pass that would have given the Ravens a first down at the Pittsburgh 30 in the first quarter, but twice he ran to the line markers for first downs to keep drives alive.

Young receivers sometimes break patterns off and come up short. Both Taylor and Ismail also blocked well. Overall, Billick was happy with his offense, even though it didn't have his signature.

He really is a Mad Bomber.

"I don't know what our coaches are planning for next week," said Ravens left tackle Jonathan Ogden. "Next week, Jacksonville might come in gearing to stop the run and we might open up the passing game. But as for right now, if our defense keeps playing like it did today, we don't have to worry about much. We just have to be solid."

Enough said.

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