Game 3: Ravens see errors of ways

This one was so ugly that even the coach could not get angry. Players lining up in the wrong formations. Receivers dropping passes. A bad snap on a punt leading to a safety. A return specialist not properly handling kickoffs.

And then there was the Vinny Testaverde file: a total of three interceptions, two leading to touchdowns.

One week after coach Ted Marchibroda questioned the Ravens' work ethic and veteran leadership in a loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Houston Oilers routed the Ravens, 29-13, yesterday before 20,082 at the Astrodome, formerly the House of Pain but now the House of Lame.

But even the Oilers, who are scheduled to move to Nashville, Tenn., by 1998, had too much talent and desire for the Ravens, who moved from Cleveland to Baltimore several months ago, but played like the 5-11 Browns of a year ago.

Marchibroda, who minced no words after the Steelers loss, took a more low-key approach yesterday.

"We had too many mistakes today," he said. "We can't give the football up that often. We can't miss tackles and we've got to take the ball away more often. We had a chance to make plays, but we didn't on third downs. It was a total team loss."

It was also the second in a row to an AFC Central Division rival for the Ravens (1-2). Houston (2-1) had 312 yards of total offense and averaged 4.4 yards a carry. The rushing offense was set up by the passing of Houston quarterback Chris Chandler, who completed 16 of 27 passes for 162 yards and two touchdowns before he was relieved by backup Steve McNair with 8: 44 left in the game and the Oilers ahead 26-7.

But the Ravens lost not just because the Oilers were a better team, but because of their own ineptitude.

"I'm going to guarantee the city of Baltimore and my teammates that I won't have any more days like I had today," said Testaverde, who completed 25 of 40 passes for 217 yards.

"Today, they were the better team," he said. "We've got to get better as a football team. We are learning a new system both on offense and defense. The bright spot is that we will get better, we just have to remember to work hard."

Testaverde's first interception wasn't his fault. He threw a nice pass to wide receiver Der- rick Alexander on the Ravens' first possession, but Alexander couldn't handle it and the ball bounced into the hands of Oilers cornerback Darryll Lewis, who returned it to the Ravens' 36.

"I never had full control of the ball, and their guy never saw the ball. He didn't even know he caught it at first," said Alexander.

A play later, receiver Chris Sanders beat Ravens cornerback Issac Booth on a slant-in for 29 yards down to the Ravens' 3. Two plays later, Chandler threw a 3-yard touchdown pass to H-back Frank Wycheck for a 7-0 lead.

Then with 1: 57 left in the first quarter and facing third-and-10 at his own 37, Testaverde tried to force a pass into double coverage and it was picked off by free safety Marcus Robertson, who returned it 27 yards to the Ravens' 23.

"This team has shown it can improve," Oilers coach Jeff Fisher said. "When we have set up to improve on an area, we've done it. We needed to get the turnovers and hold them down, and we did that."

Three plays later, Chandler threw 18 yards to wide receiver Willie Davis on a fade route in the right corner of the end zone to put the Oilers ahead 14-0.

Doesn't this sound familiar? The Ravens gave up two touchdowns on turnovers last week in a 31-17 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers.

"On the first one, I thought we had a completion. On the second, he didn't see the guy and on the third one, they just made a great play," Marchibroda said of Testaverde's interceptions. "We made more mistakes than we should have. That was the thing that hurt us.

"We're going to be all right; we've got two weeks to regroup," said Marchibroda, who said he never thought about replacing Testaverde with No. 2 quarterback Eric Zeier. "The worst we can be is one game out of first place. You're not ready to cash in all your chips and make 9 million changes at this particular time. Today we played hard, but we didn't play smart."

The Ravens' intelligence certainly came into question during the final three minutes of the first half. Trailing 17-7, they moved the ball into position but couldn't get a 42-yard field-goal attempt from Matt Stover, the game's most consistent kicker, as time expired.

The series began with a strange twist as Ravens return specialist Earnest Hunter failed to run under a low kickoff and then watched it roll before teammate Jermaine Lewis fell on the loose ball at the Ravens' 4.

The Ravens moved to the Houston 34 with 15 seconds left in the half, but with no timeouts left, Testaverde threw a 9-yard pass to Alexander, who could not get out of bounds.

"That was the route I was told to run," said Alexander.

But why didn't Testaverde just throw the pass out of bounds to stop the clock? And why wasn't Testaverde in the shotgun formation to save even more time during the two-minute drill?

"I think we were sort of in an unusual situation," said Marchibroda, who used the team's last timeout before the Alexander catch.

"I think the only decision now, as I look back, was to call a timeout and kick the field goal with 15 seconds left. But with 15 seconds left, you still have time to run another play. That was the thing to do in that situation. But we didn't get out of bounds on the play."

"That took away some of our momentum," said Testaverde.

The Ravens had very little success in the third quarter. They ran only eight offensive plays in the period, one of those resulting in a safety for Houston when Brian Kinchen snapped the ball over the head of punter Greg Montgomery, who swatted it out of the end zone with 10: 59 left in the third period.

Meanwhile, Houston was loading up its running attack and finally started getting rookie halfback Eddie George into the offense. George was stuffed for only 26 yards in the first half.

On the Oilers' third possession of the third period, George opened the series with four straight rushes for 25 yards down to the Ravens' 36.

Six plays later, running back Ronnie Harmon ran up the middle for a 2-yard touchdown with 1: 54 left in the quarter for a 26-7 lead.

"I think being out there so long took its toll on us," said Ravens linebacker Eddie Sutter. "Ted runs us a lot and we're in great shape, but no one wants to be out there for long periods of time."

"I think when we scored our last touchdown, that took the wind out of their sails," said Oilers guard Kevin Donnalley. "Our defense really stepped it up and their offense wasn't clicking."

The Ravens' offensive woes could be seen on Testaverde's face as early as the first quarter. He appeared angry when Alexander dropped a 20-yard pass over the middle down to the Oilers' 25. A play later, fullback Carwell Gardner was slow getting out on a screen to the left.

On the next play, a frustrated Testaverde admitted he tried to force the pass that was picked off by Robertson. It was that kind of day for the Ravens, who dropped five passes.

"We've got to do some soul searching over the next two weeks," said Ravens cornerback Antonio Langham.

"We need to have some people in there studying film so they can know their opponents' moves and what is going on all the time," he said. "We're supposed to be professional football players."