NASHVILLE, TENN. — As the final seconds ticked off the clock, Ravens defensive tackle Lional Dalton was standing with his head bowed as fellow tackle Larry Webster dropped to his knees and pounded his fist into the ground. Wide receiver Qadry Ismail stared at the clock with his hands on his hips.
A season of "what ifs" produced more questions yesterday as the Tennessee Titans defeated the Ravens, 14-11, in an AFC Central game before 65,486 at Adelphia Coliseum.What if quarterback Stoney Case had connected with receiver Jermaine Lewis for a possible 78-yard touchdown pass on the first play from scrimmage? What if receiver Patrick Johnson had held onto a 35-yard touchdown pass in the third quarter? What if rookie cornerback Chris McAlister hadn't been peeping into the Titans' backfield, which allowed the game-winning 27-yard touchdown pass to Yancey Thigpen midway in the third quarter? What if Ismail had gotten out of bounds after 25 yards with seven seconds left rather than ending the game with his 32-yard gain to the Titans' 41-yard line?
The answers seem to further frustrate first-year coach Brian Billick, whose 2-3 team lacks a prime-time receiver and quarterback. It was never more evident than yesterday, when the Ravens had to settle for Matt Stover field goals of 44, 46 and 50 yards against a struggling Tennessee team that was penalized 15 times for an NFL-record 212 yards.
Billick had seen improvement in the offense against Cleveland and Atlanta, but there wasn't too much to get excited about after his offense produced only 246 yards, 150 of those in the first half. The only real positive to come out of the game was that the Ravens have a bye Sunday, which will give their starting offensive tackles time to heal. Right tackle Harry Swayne didn't play yesterday after aggravating an ankle sprain during pre-game warm-ups.
Pro Bowl left offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden left the game with 9: 57 left in the first quarter after re-injuring his neck, which he sprained last week in Atlanta.
"That was a pretty good offense out there," said Billick in a tribute to his defense, which held Tennessee (4-1) to 272 yards of offense. "Our defense put us in position to offensively have an impact on the game. But we had a few dropped passes and missed some assignments. It's frustrating, very frustrating, but I'm not going to slit my wrist, beat my dog or burn down my house. We're going to keep working and clean this thing up."
There is not much to clean up defensively. The Ravens held Eddie George, one of the league's premier running backs, to 55 yards on 20 carries. Despite not registering a sack, the Ravens stifled one of the league's top passing games for only 216 yards as Titans quarterback Neil O'Donnell completed 24 of 35 passes.
But Tennessee isolated on McAlister, who was making his first pro start. McAlister played well, making four tackles and knocking down one pass, but he gave up the touchdown pass to Thigpen down the right sideline with 7: 23 left in the third quarter. That put Tennessee ahead, 14-9, which proved to be enough to win.
Thigpen, one of the AFC's top receivers, said the route was simple and so was the move. He had McAlister beat by 10 to 15 yards on a stutter-and-go that left McAlister standing around the 20-yard line.
"I kind of stuttered at about 12 yards and he bit on it," Thigpen said. "I gave him a little bait and he took the bait."
McAlister said: "They told me that if I see the quarterback throw the pass, then I'll see him complete the touchdown. I saw him complete the touchdown. It was just a stutter-and-go. It was also a bad move by an undisciplined cornerback."
Those things can be corrected. The Ravens' undermanned offense is a different story. The Ravens had a solid running game considering they were missing two starting offensive linemen. But they converted on only six of 17 third-down situations and had only five second-half points despite having possessions that started at their 35-, 36- and 43-yard lines.
This was not a strong effort by Case. He completed eight of 18 passes for 116 yards in the first half, but was 7-for-19 in the second for only 91 yards. This could have been a coming-out party for Case because he was playing against a top-notch defense for the first time in three starts.
Instead, Tennessee put seven or eight players around the line of scrimmage to control running back Errict Rhett (59 yards on 21 attempts) and dared Case to beat the Titans with his arm.
Case will see a similar strategy on Oct. 21 when the Kansas City Chiefs come to town.
"Some good things, some bad things," Case said about his performance. "I definitely would like to have some throws back and some reads back. But we had a chance at the end of winning, and that's what you want."
The Ravens had chances earlier in the second half. But Johnson dropped a possible touchdown pass over the middle in the end zone with 11 minutes left in the third quarter. The Ravens were eventually forced into a 50-yard field goal by Stover, which gave them a 9-7 lead. But the Ravens could have been up 13-7.
"I had it, then the dude fell on me and pulled it out," Johnson said. "Actually, I thought I had it long enough for the touchdown. But I should have made the play."
When the Ravens couldn't catch, they made other mistakes. They had too many men on the field on fourth-and-one at the Titans' 48 on the second play of the fourth quarter. Offensive tackle Everett Lindsay jumped offside on fourth-and-one at the Titans' 49 with 8: 21 left in the game.
And then there was Ismail, who tried to make a big play by running back to the middle of the field instead of going out of bounds at the end of the game.
"I tried to make him [the cornerback] miss so I could get out of bounds. Then they started converging on me and I got trapped," Ismail said. "I should have fought like heck and dove out of bounds. I just have to do a better job."
The Ravens had their chances to score in the first two quarters, but trailed 7-6 at halftime as Stover converted on field goals of 44 and 46 yards. The Ravens scored first when Stover finished an eight-play, 53-yard drive with the 44-yarder with 6: 53 left in the first quarter.
The big play in the drive occurred when Tennessee cornerback Denard Walker was called for pass interference on Ismail, which resulted in a 42-yard gain to the Titans' 37. But on third-and-16 from the 27, Case lost his grip on the ball while attempting to pass, and the Ravens had to bring in Stover.
But soon after Stover gave the Ravens the lead, his ensuing kickoff went only to the Tennessee 25, and the Titans took possession at their 39. O'Donnell then went after McAlister, completing passes of 20 and 10 yards to Thigpen and Issac Byrd, respectively.
The Titans completed the touchdown drive with two straight rushing attempts from the 1, with fullback Lorenzo Neal completing the 10-play, 61-yard drive with a 1-yard run for a touchdown that put the Titans ahead, 7-3, with 1: 46 left in the first quarter.
The Ravens went on their own scoring drive on their next possession, led by a 21-yard reception by Johnson and the tough inside running of Rhett. The Ravens drove from their 9 to the Titans' 21, but Case was sacked for an 8-yard loss on third down and Stover kicked a 46-yard field goal to cut the Titans' lead to 7-6 with 8: 33 left in the half.
The Ravens had one more scoring opportunity before the half, thanks to a 28-yard completion from Case to Jermaine Lewis down the right sideline to the Titans' 43. But on second-and-seven from the 25, Case fumbled the snap from center Jeff Mitchell, and right end Henry Ford recovered at the 28 with 2: 25 remaining.
The Ravens performed well in the first half, with 150 yards of total offense. Rhett had 40 yards rushing on 12 attempts and more importantly put both starting safeties, Blaine Bishop and Marcus Robertson, out of the game on vicious collisions. After leaving in the second quarter, Bishop returned for the second half.