As season grows old, Ravens need to start thinking young

The Baltimore Sun

About a week ago, Ravens coach Brian Billick was saying all the right things. He still talked about the playoffs and having enough confidence to win the remaining six games.

Now, Billick has to do the right thing.

After a 32-14 loss to the San Diego Chargers on Sunday, he needs to start playing some of the young guys on the roster to see whether they can become starters.

Let's not talk about "running the table" anymore, because that's absurd. The philosophy of this team shifted Sunday night from the present to the future.

With home games remaining against New England, Indianapolis and Pittsburgh and another trip to the West Coast to face Seattle, the Ravens can't even get a sniff of the playoffs. Shoot, they'll be lucky to win one more game.

But the team has had some good drafts in recent years and should have a good nucleus for the future. Here's the perfect opportunity to take a peek.

Billick has to be careful. You don't want to step on the toes of certain veterans who have given so much to the organization. They deserve face-to-face meetings.

But the NFL is a business. Some of those same veterans forced out older players when they were young. But with this season now no more than a formality, Billick should take a look at rookie quarterback Troy Smith.

Most of us, except for those Kyle Boller loyalists, know Boller isn't the answer. And, to be honest, Smith probably isn't either. But when you win the Heisman Trophy, you deserve a chance to prove yourself.

Smith doesn't have to start over Boller, but Billick can insert him in certain situations. They can use Smith on rollout and sprint-action pass plays. The Ravens have never been known for their creativity, but this is the time to take some chances.

Billick might also make similar moves on the offensive line, inserting some of these youngsters at times for left tackle Jonathan Ogden and center Mike Flynn.

Barring a miracle, it appears Ogden will retire at the end of this season. If he trained hard during the offseasons, Ogden could still play at a high level for several more years.

But the passion isn't there, and Ogden seems as frustrated as ever with the Ravens' play-calling. Flynn has also been a loyal Raven, but he might become a salary-cap casualty in the offseason.

The Ravens already made one move Sunday when they played rookie Marshal Yanda at right tackle over third-year player Adam Terry. Terry is technically sound and a good athlete, but he seems more suited to the left side than the right.

Right tackles are more ornery, like former Raven Orlando Brown. Yanda has those qualities. Left tackles have more quickness and more finesse, like Terry. He played well filling in for Ogden last season.

The Ravens should also give more repetitions to second-year guard-center Chris Chester and rookie tackle Jared Gaither. Gaither also has the nasty streak of a right tackle but needs more playing time.

While shuffling players, the Ravens should look at reworking their offensive philosophy, if you can call it that. The Ravens play not to lose instead of trying to win. They have attacking players, but they don't attack, especially when a defense plays cover-2. Billick must shake in his sleep at night thinking of playing against two-deep coverage.

It's great that wide receiver Derrick Mason has all these catches, but the Ravens can't win games with those short passes. Third-year receiver Mark Clayton is a former No. 1 draft pick, and he has great elusiveness, but he caught only two passes Sunday.

With a speedster like second-year wide receiver Demetrius Williams out of the lineup with a sprained ankle, why not insert rookie Yamon Figurs for a play or two? The kid can fly. The Ravens need to spread the ball around.

Defensively, the Ravens might have another Adalius Thomas in the making in rookie linebacker Edgar Jones, an undrafted free agent out of Southeast Missouri.

Jones is 6 feet 3 and weighs 263 pounds. He is physical enough to play on the inside and fast enough to play on the outside as far as coverages. The Ravens have already been using rookie outside linebacker Antwan Barnes, out of Florida International, more in passing situations.

The big question is what happened to second-year cornerback David Pittman? He played well in the preseason but hasn't been able to get on the field despite injuries to starters Chris McAlister and Samari Rolle.

Pittman, a third-round pick, must be a bust, because he should be able to prove he is better than cornerbacks Corey Ivy and Derrick Martin.

No coach really wants to go through this situation. When it happens, it means you're done for the season. Well, expectations were high for 2007, but they have faded away. All that's left now is to play for pride and position for the draft in April.

If the Ravens lose with these youngsters playing, it's no big deal. If they win, then they might be on to something.

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