When dared to throw long, Ravens are in deep trouble

Let's make sure the blame for the Ravens' loss to the Bengals is properly assigned.

Yes, the defense yielded instead of dominated, seemed lethargic at times and didn't have one of its shutdown games, but even on a bad night, it allowed just one touchdown to a dangerous offense - on a gimmick play, no less. That should be enough for a win.


The offense was a much bigger problem in the 13-7 defeat.

It shouldn't cause too much hand-wringing because the Ravens were due for a letdown after winning nine of their first 11 games, and they still have a two-game lead in the AFC North. But Thursday night's loss could resonate in a more meaningful way if other teams successfully follow the blueprint the Bengals used in pitching a near shutout.


They stacked defenders throughout the short passing zones and basically dared the Ravens to beat them with the long ball. The Ravens couldn't do it. In fact, the Ravens barely even tried.

The absence of long completions has been a lingering flaw in the Ravens' otherwise improved passing game, which is ranked 17th in the league after finishing 19th, last and last in the previous three seasons. Quarterback Steve McNair has been much more productive than Kyle Boller overall (the Ravens rank among the league leaders in completions) but only three teams average fewer yards per catch, and only two have fewer plays of 40-plus yards.

In other words, the Ravens either can't go deep or aren't trying.

There are numerous possible explanations. McNair's arm obviously isn't as strong as it was. The Ravens' receivers (Derrick Mason, Mark Clayton and Todd Heap) are effective but don't have the kind of speed that breaks big plays. And coach Brian Billick, who used to love to talk about the positives of a "vertical" passing game, seems happy just to ram out first downs with runs and short passes.

Make no mistake, the "profile" Billick has established has worked for the most part since he took over the play-calling six games ago. He is doing a better job of emphasizing what the Ravens do well.

But what they don't do well - throw long - was a shortcoming waiting to be exploited as the Bengals did. And if the league's 31st-ranked defense can turn back the Ravens that way, imagine what the league's better defenses might do in the playoffs.

Come to think of it, some of the league's better defenses have already successfully employed the strategy to some degree. The San Diego Chargers and Carolina Panthers dared McNair to go deep as they pressured him with relentless blitzes. The Ravens piddled around on offense, lost to the Panthers and were lucky to beat the Chargers.

The Bengals also came after McNair just as hard Thursday night, and as in those earlier games, he didn't like it. He is a savvy veteran and clearly the Ravens' Most Valuable Player in 2006, but at this point in his career, he seems more susceptible to pressure than before.


He had a bad game against the Bengals. He threw so many balls up for grabs that he easily could have rung up five interceptions. He missed a handful of seemingly easy completions, and too many of his passes fluttered. He inexplicably spiked the ball to set up a field-goal attempt late in the first half when there was time for a quick shot at the end zone.

These things happen. He was flat. The whole team was flat, seemingly having left something on the field after its dismantling of the Steelers four days earlier.

But in fairness, McNair's options were increasingly limited as the game progressed. The Bengals focused on taking away Heap as an option and then they ramped up the pressure, forcing McNair to unload the ball before any long routes could develop. His only alternatives were dump-offs and other short passes, and the Ravens just plodded along, a few yards at a time, when they moved at all.

The Bengals' defense could afford to play everything else aggressively because they knew the Ravens weren't going to torch them with the long ball.

Going forward, the Ravens surely will encounter similar defensive alignments; why not go with what works? The Ravens' receivers have it in them to take on the dares and sustain a longer passing game. McNair's arm? That's the bigger question. It was an upset that a duck hunter didn't blast his Thursday night touchdown pass to Mason out of the sky.

In any case, the Ravens have to start trying harder to make big things happen in the air. After Thursday, it seems clear the rest of the league has adjusted to them. Now it's time for them to adjust back.