Game 9: Points short, so is Billick fuse

JACKSONVILLE, FLA. — The Ravens held one of the best teams in the NFL to 47 yards rushing, 85 yards passing, nine first downs, an average of 2.2 yards per offensive play and sacked its quarterback six times.

And they still lost.In a season of close defeats, the Ravens dropped another yesterday, losing, 6-3, to the Jacksonville Jaguars before 67,391 at ALLTEL Stadium. As the losses mount, the frustration builds, and it's beginning to show in Ravens first-year coach Brian Billick.

He came to Baltimore from Minnesota, where the Vikings set a league record for points last season with 556, but the Ravens continued yesterday to have one of the worst offenses in the league. They weren't as unsuccessful as the Jaguars (8-1), but the Ravens (3-6) had only 242 yards of total offense.

Billick was willing to give Jaguars punter Bryan Barker credit and praised the Ravens defense, but seemed equally frustrated with several offensive players and the special teams. And for the first time, he singled out players when questioned about them, particularly wide receiver Jermaine Lewis, who dropped three passes, and tight end Aaron Pierce, who fumbled after a key reception in the first half.

The game-winning, 28-yard field goal came from Mike Hollis with 1: 52 left in the third quarter. The victory was Jacksonville's first win ever without scoring a touchdown. The Ravens' last legitimate scoring opportunity came with 3: 13 left in the game. But on third-and-three from the Jacksonville 34, Ravens quarterback Tony Banks threw behind receiver Qadry Ismail on a slant-in, and then couldn't find an open receiver on the next play as Billick passed on a 51-yard field-goal attempt by Matt Stover. Banks was stopped for no gain by tackle Gary Walker.

That play ended the threat, but Billick was only warming up. He went Billistic afterward.

"For whatever reason, we are short by one thing, whether it's three points to Tennessee, three points to Pittsburgh, three points to Buffalo, three points to Jacksonville," Billick said. "I'd love to lose by four points. I'm tired of losing by three.

"There is plenty of effort there. We are that one thing short. If I knew what that one thing was, I would change that. But we will have to find that out individually."

Lewis caught most of Billick's wrath. Billick has been criticized for not working the small, speedy wide receiver into the game plan, but Lewis had numerous opportunities yesterday. He caught three passes for 13 yards, but dropped three. He was also called for a false start on a second-and-six from the Ravens' 14 with about 13 minutes left in the game, then he went in motion instead of staying in his alignment on the next play, forcing Banks to call a timeout.

The relationship between Billick and Lewis started to sour in training camp. There were players who thought Billick criticized him too harshly when he made mistakes learning the new offense, and they fear Lewis has lost confidence after Billick repeatedly challenged him to be an All-Pro receiver like Cris Carter in Minnesota.

"Let me make this clear: From this point on, I'll make this real simple for you all, and you could put this in quotes, put it on your visor, my answer to getting Jermaine Lewis into the offense is, `I have no comment.' I don't want to hear the question. I'm not going to answer it anymore," said Billick.

"Jermaine has to take responsibility for it. I have to take responsibility for it. We can't drop passes. We can't run the wrong route. We can't not know where to line up. We can't jump offsides. I evidently can't find a way to get him consistently in the offense. From this point on, any question about Jermaine Lewis is `no comment.' "

Well, how about Pierce?

On one of the team's few drives, the Ravens had moved from their 34 to the Jaguars' 27 midway in the second quarter. On fourth-and-two, quarterback Stoney Case -- playing the quarter after Banks twisted an ankle -- passed to Pierce over the middle for a first down to the 20, but Pierce fumbled and cornerback Fernando Bryant returned it to the Jacksonville 43.

Billick put Pierce on the bench for the rest of the game, replacing him with A. J. Ofodile.

"You can't beat Jacksonville if you're going to turn the ball over," Billick said about Pierce, one of the "trash heap" free-agent players the team signed during the off-season for close to the league minimum of $400,000. "At some point, players and coaches have to understand that there are consequences for your actions. I can't throw a fuzzy arm around them and say, `Go back in there and win one for the Gipper, son,' and have another mistake."

The Ravens never had much of an attack, converting on two of 14 third downs. Banks returned to start the third quarter. Wide receiver Justin Armour left the game about 3 1/2 minutes later with a severe bruise on his left calf that caused cramps. Fullback Chuck Evans didn't play in the second half because of a triceps bruise.

Case completed seven of 12 passes for 103 yards in the second quarter. But his possessions started at the Ravens' 34, 14 and 46. Banks completed 10 of 21 passes for 73 yards, but the Ravens seldom had a chance to open up an already conservative offense. Billick said he didn't think about replacing Banks with Case.

"What Stoney did was in a nice two-minute situation," said Billick. "He made some nice throws, did a good job. But Tony did not warrant anything for pulling him out of this game, except the injury was a concern."

Banks said: "Because of our defense, we're going to be conservative on offense and try to make a few plays. I kept telling the offense that it was only going to take one drive and we could win the football game. We only had to make a play, and we're not getting it done. I didn't get it done. I think our defense proved who the best defense in the league is."

The defense couldn't have played much better. It held Jacksonville to 100 yards of total offense after three quarters and dominated one of the best offensive lines in the league. The Ravens also got some help by the conservative play-calling of Jacksonville coach Tom Coughlin, who has as many weapons as Billick had last season in Minnesota.

But the last weapon was Barker, who out-dueled Ravens counterpart Kyle Richardson. Barker averaged 42.6 yards a punt while still pinning the Ravens inside their 20-yard line eight times, a team record, including seven punts inside the 15.

Richardson averaged 42.6 yards on eight kicks, but quite a few were short and returnable. Richardson also had one blocked, which set up Hollis' first 28-yard field goal in the second quarter.

The Ravens special teams also gave Lewis little chance to return punts. Lewis was smothered as soon as he touched the ball.

"We're not that dynamic offensively to start that far back," Billick said of the field position.

Said Richardson: "My kicking was not up to par. We knew going in that the punters were going to establish field position. I guess I just had a bad day."

It was another great defensive effort wasted. As the players dressed in the locker room, the Ravens talked about putting together a winning streak, but it will be hard without any offensive weapons. At least there was no finger pointing.

Not yet anyway.

"The bottom line in this game is winning and losing," said Ravens safety Rod Woodson. "The good thing for us is that it's not too late in the season. Once we start winning, the tide will turn."

"The best thing about this team is that we keep fighting," said middle linebacker Ray Lewis. "Jacksonville knows they were in a game this week, and we got them again in two weeks. Who knows, next time we're at home and we might come out on top. We're mature enough to work our way through this."