5 tough questions

The Baltimore Sun

With the Ravens already listed as 20 1/2 -point underdogs, Samari Rolle summed up the players' approach to Monday night's game against the undefeated New England Patriots.

"Monday night is our Super Bowl," the veteran cornerback said.

But if the Ravens' offense continues at its current pace, it could be more like a Super Bore.

During their five-game losing streak, the Ravens' offense has fallen to No. 25 despite playing some of the worst defenses in the NFL.

Facing the defenses of the Buffalo Bills (31st), Cincinnati Bengals (28th), Cleveland Browns (32nd) and San Diego Chargers (21st) during their skid, the Ravens have averaged 16.3 points and totaled 13 turnovers.

So what are the Ravens going to do against a New England defense that is ranked third in the NFL, is determined to confuse offenses with unpredictable schemes and is upset after giving up 28 points to the Philadelphia Eagles?

Ravens coach Brian Billick said his team will be up for the challenge.

"It's Monday night against the best team in the league right now," Billick said a day after another humbling defeat, 32-14, at San Diego. "Everybody wants to be the team that knocks off New England. That's a worthy goal. It will be a great opportunity for us in front of fans to show we're better than what we've shown."

These are the major questions facing the Ravens' offense heading into its toughest challenge of the season:

What are the Ravens going to do at quarterback?

The more appropriate question might be: Does it even matter at this point?

Steve McNair has committed 11 turnovers this season. Kyle Boller has eight.

Because McNair is still recovering from a partially dislocated left shoulder, Boller remains the starter by default.

"This week, [McNair] won't be ready, and we'll go week by week after that to see where he is," Billick said.

Beyond Monday, Billick won't speculate about the starting quarterback position.

Asked whether McNair would regain his job when healthy, Billick said, "Don't know, we'll see."

The choices remain just McNair and Boller. Billick said there are no plans to promote rookie Troy Smith, the Heisman Trophy winner, to the starting offense.

Is tight end Todd Heap done for the season?

Heap has missed five of the past seven games with a hamstring injury, which is one of the reasons the offense is limping around these days.

Billick wouldn't dismiss the possibility that the injury is season-ending, but he said Heap's status is considered week-to-week.

"I hate to be so vague, but I don't know that Todd knows for sure until he progresses during the week," Billick said. "He pushes it, and it comes to a point where it grabs again or it doesn't. It's not much of an answer, but it's the only one that I have."

Heap's return would significantly boost the chance of competing against New England. But if he could further injure the hamstring - which might lead to offseason surgery - it might not be worth the risk in what are essentially meaningless games.

What has happened with Mark Clayton?

Boller throws so often to Derrick Mason that it seems he has the veteran wide receiver on his fantasy team.

The forgotten receiver is Mark Clayton, the team's best playmaker last season. With Heap and Demetrius Williams injured the past two weeks, Clayton has made a total of four catches for 24 yards.

Billick speculated that Clayton's lack of production is the result of more three-receiver formations (which provide more options in the passing game) and the absence of Heap (defenses roll their coverage more toward the wide receivers).

"There are probably a number of things along those lines that have kept Mark from having the numbers that he might otherwise have," Billick said.

Clayton is on pace to finish the season with 48 catches for 430 yards, which is a big drop-off from last season (67 receptions for 939 yards).

Will Rick Neuheisel be with the Ravens much longer?

Neuheisel could be the Ravens' first offensive coordinator under Billick to leave on his own.

He has been linked to the University of Mississippi coaching job and might be contacted for the Georgia Tech opening. There could be a chance that UCLA, Neuheisel's alma mater, might be looking for a coach soon, too.

Neuheisel was fired as the University of Washington coach in July 2003 for his involvement in an NCAA men's basketball tournament pool. In March 2005, he received a $4.5 million settlement after it was revealed that the university's compliance office had sent out a memo that permitted the type of pool in which Neuheisel participated.

If Neuheisel accepts a college job, Billick said, he would allow him to leave during the Ravens' season.

"Rick has been and will make an outstanding college coach," Billick said. "I would be very surprised if a number of these schools weren't interested in Rick Neuheisel, and we'll support that in any way that we can."

Neuheisel did not return phone calls yesterday from The Sun.

Will offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden return to his Pro Bowl form?

Despite all of the Ravens' problems on offense over the seasons, Ogden has always been the foundation, the one player they never had to worry about.

But Ogden, who missed five games this season with a toe injury, isn't looking like the lineman who returned to an elite level in 2006. In Sunday's loss, Ogden struggled to contain the Chargers' Shawne Merriman, one of the NFL's top pass rushers, just one season after silencing him.

Billick said Ogden is sometimes "victimized" because the Ravens rely on him to handle the top defensive players without any blocking help.

"I think J.O. is playing well," Billick said. "Obviously, it's taken awhile to get him into that rhythm, given that he missed half a season. He's still one of the best tackles in the league, in my opinion."

With so few blemishes on Ogden's career, it would be difficult to watch him end it with another performance like Sunday's.


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