Patriots too deep for Ravens' 'D' to measure up

The Baltimore Sun

Ravens coach Brian Billick has been in a similar situation, but his objective was different. Now, it's his turn to try to slow down one of the most highly productive offenses in league history.

Billick was the offensive coordinator of the 1998 Minnesota Vikings, who scored an NFL-record 556 points. Tonight, the Ravens face the unbeaten New England Patriots, who are on pace to score 643.

Billick is aware of some similarities, and he knows the mission won't be easy.

"I look at a Patriots offense that's about to just zoom past that 1998 offense that I had that holds the all-time scoring record," Billick said. "This team is running at a high level of efficiency."

They're too efficient for the Ravens. This would have been a great matchup last season, but the 2007 Ravens aren't as strong defensively. Injuries have been a problem, but teams also have found a way to attack the Ravens by using no-huddle offenses and spread formations, where the quarterback sprays the field with passes off three-step drops.

The Ravens can't always get their nickel and dime packages (five and six defensive backs) on the field, and their speedy linebackers don't get full drops into coverage.

The Patriots can play that style or they can play long ball. They can run the ball or do just about whatever they want to do.

Billick remembers those days with the Vikings. They had a pretty good quarterback in Randall Cunningham and a featured running back named Robert Smith. Veteran Cris Carter was one outside wide receiver, and a skinny rookie named Randy Moss was the other.

The Patriots have Moss on the outside and many other receivers such as Wes Welker, Donte Stallworth, Jabar Gaffney and Kelley Washington.

They can pound the ball with running backs Laurence Maroney or Kevin Faulk. Like the Vikings, who had two Pro Bowl players on the left side of the offensive line in guard Randall McDaniel and tackle Todd Steussie, the Patriots' two best linemen are left tackle Matt Light and left guard Logan Mankins.

And then there is quarterback Tom Brady. Cunningham was good. Brady is from another planet.

"He's an efficient [and] as smooth an operating quarterback as I've seen in a long time," Billick said. "He's got great fundamental mechanics. He knows exactly what it is he wants to do and when he wants to do it. He's a joy to watch as a coach."

But there won't be a lot of smiling tonight, at least not on Billick's part. Moss has 1,095 receiving yards and 16 touchdown catches. Welker has 878 receiving yards and seven touchdown catches.

Brady has thrown 39 touchdown passes, and the Patriots have scored 50 points twice this season. New England is averaging 124.2 rushing yards and 310.2 passing yards.

Meanwhile, the Ravens are struggling, having allowed more than 30 points in each of the past two games.

For the Ravens to win, they have to play a near-perfect game and force turnovers by the Patriots. That seems impossible because the Ravens like to inflict wounds upon themselves with turnovers and penalties.

The Ravens need to take chances with long passes downfield, but Billick has been reluctant to do that all season.

To slow the Patriots, you have to get to Brady, and the Ravens have had trouble pressuring quarterbacks all season.

But the real scary parts are the matchups in the secondary. If cornerback Chris McAlister was healthy, he could take Moss out of the game, especially if he is physical with him.

But McAlister hasn't been 100 percent in the past four games he has started, and he won't be for the rest of the season. Cornerback Samari Rolle started the season strongly, but last week, against the San Diego Chargers, he clearly showed the rust of having missed six games this season, including three of the past four.

The key, though, is who is going to match up with Welker in the slot? Welker is a phenomenal talent. He has great quickness and hands and can find the openings in zone defenses. So will it be Corey Ivy or Derrick Martin?

There doesn't appear to be an answer.

I know the Ravens will play hard on defense tonight. I expect them to make a game out of it for a while because they have so much pride. This organization has been built on playing great defense.

But when it's over, I think Billick might be answering the same question he often was asked in 1998, and the one Patriots coach Bill Belichick gets asked after almost every game: the one about running up the score.

"You go out and you're competitive," Billick said. "It's a physical game. You go out there to score, so I don't have a problem with that. It is what it is, and I've been on both sides of it. One side is more fun than the other. I don't make much of it. I'm not offended by it."

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