Grade Ravens on the results, not simply on presentation

THE BALTIMORE SUN

IF YOU WANT style points or finesse, then cheer for the Kansas City Chiefs or the St. Louis Rams. If you want ugly, scrappy, hustling football, then here come the Ravens.

The Ravens' 24-10 win against the San Diego Chargers on Sunday was hard on the eyes, but it doesn't matter at this point in the season. All that counts is that they came away with the win.

The Ravens allowed the Chargers nearly 400 yards of total offense, and they've won two games against teams that have a combined 1-5 record, but this team is right where it should be at 2-1, and looking awfully mediocre.

But really, isn't that what we expected? Right?

The Ravens start a rookie quarterback in Kyle Boller, who has completed only 19 passes in the past two games. They have yet to find a receiver other than tight end Todd Heap who can catch the ball consistently. They're still playing musical chairs at right offensive tackle with Orlando Brown and Ethan Brooks.

And now, for the defense.

There isn't a big stud on the defensive line, and the life of cornerback Chris McAlister has more twists and curves than an old, knotted shoestring.

So, coach Brian Billick should be smiling these days. This is a team in the second year after a total housecleaning, and it's got the nice part of the schedule coming up. After Kansas City on Sunday, the Ravens have Arizona and Cincinnati on the road, followed by home games against Denver and Jacksonville.

With the Ravens, there are no guaranteed wins, but with the possible exception of the Chiefs, these are very winnable games. On any given Sunday, at this point of the season, any team can out-ugly the other team.

Plus, let's put the Broncos game in the bank. Billick has stock in Denver and Tennessee because he owns both of those teams.

But just as important as the schedule, the Ravens seem to have found their offensive identity after three games compared with being nomads in the previous two seasons. This is a team committed to the run with the potential for overwhelming success in the future. It's a philosophy that won't get the Ravens any style points because fans like to see the John Elways and Brett Favres spray the ball all over the field to receivers like Terrell Owens and Jerry Rice.

But this game plan takes the ball out of Boller's hands and the Ravens' ineffective play-calling and pass offense. It's a good thing to see running back Jamal Lewis carrying the ball 30 to 35 times a game, or taking a pitch around left end running behind left tackle Jonathan Ogden. It would be even better if the Ravens would finally give fullback Alan Ricard about five touches a game.

And it's going to look sweeter in late November and December, when Lewis' legs get a little tired, and the Ravens pull rookie running back Musa Smith off the bench. The Ravens should run Lewis, Ricard and Smith as much this season as the Miami Dolphins are running Ricky Williams.

There seems to be an opinion around town that Boller played well against San Diego, but there didn't appear to be major progress from a week ago. Maybe he was better in making reads, or more daring in his attempts, but he is still erratic on both short and long throws. He started short-arming a couple of throws in the second half after getting hit. Boller may have had two dropped passes against the Chargers, but he also should have had two passes intercepted.

Of course, the drops have become routine. Travis Taylor, Marcus Robinson, even Lewis are all members of the Drop of the Week club. Without Heap going up to make spectacular catches on those jump-ball passes that have become the main staple of the passing game, the Ravens have no passing game and no go-to receiver.

Thank goodness they can run. It's just so much more reliable. But Billick would one day like to be as balanced as Kansas City.

"Quarterback stability is a huge thing," said Billick of Chiefs quarterback Trent Green. "To complement that running game with what he does in the passing game is something that we are striving to do with assets outside and throwing the ball to where that could be a really good one-two combination."

"I think he [Boller] is getting more and more comfortable with just throwing the ball," Billick said. "Just let it go. Believe what you see, be prudent with it, don't be haphazard, but just let it go, son."

Defensively, the Ravens need a wide body on the defensive line. They don't have anyone who can dominate the middle on the run, or a player who can collapse the pocket on the pass. They have agile, lean linemen, but no guys with big butts who take up space. Ravens owner Art Modell has said this defense might be a good as the 2000 group that won the Super Bowl, but that's a stretch.

The 2000 group had six players who had been on Pro Bowl teams at one point in their careers, including a sure Hall of Famer in safety Rod Woodson. They had two big tackles in the middle in Tony Siragusa and Sam Adams. Back then, cornerbacks Duane Starks and McAlister were playing extremely well, even though McAlister was young and immature.

These days, he is older and still immature.

Teams can move the ball on the present-day Ravens. They can't dominate like the old group. San Diego had success with the run, and Pittsburgh bombed them with the pass. Still, on most Sundays, the Ravens are going to play well enough to keep them in most games.

Offensively, if Lewis can run well, they'll win enough to at least finish somewhere near .500. Right now, they have the No. 21-ranked offense in the league and the No. 13-ranked defense, which again points to mediocrity. Maybe during the offseason, they can find that receiver, defensive or offensive lineman who takes them to another level. Maybe by then, Boller will have matured into the quarterback the Ravens think he will become.

Until then, this is a team that's going to struggle and have to fight like heck the entire season and, with a few breaks, might sneak into the playoffs.

Regardless of what happens, though, it's not going to be pretty.

Next for Ravens

Matchup: Kansas City Chiefs (3-0) vs. Ravens (2-1)

Site: M&T; Bank Stadium

When: Sunday, 4:05 p.m.

TV/Radio: Ch. 13/WJFK (1300 AM), WQSR (102.7 FM)

Line: Chiefs by 3

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