Who's next, John Unitas?
The Ravens have run out of quarterbacks and offensive options, and yesterday they ran out of time in a 13-10 loss to the Buffalo Bills before 68,673 at PSINet Stadium.The script has become familiar. The defense plays well enough to win, the Ravens get some production out of their running game, but little from the passing attack. Yet on a day when the Ravens held the Bills to 249 yards of total offense, intercepted three Doug Flutie passes and knocked down 12 more, the most questionable call of the game was their defensive alignment on a fourth-and-15 from the Ravens' 39-yard line with 2: 36 left in the game.
The Ravens had gotten pressure on Flute all afternoon with at least a four-man rush, but this time the Ravens chose to rush three. Flutie waited, waited and then waited for his receivers to clear before running for 17 yards. Four plays later, Flutie, rolling to his right, passed 5 yards to running back Jonathan Linton in the end zone for the game-winning touchdown with 1: 35 left in the game.
Why did the Ravens change up? Where was a spy to follow Flutie all over the field? The Ravens have had similar problems with Pittsburgh's Kordell Stewart and Tennessee's Steve McNair in the past.
Ravens defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis was not available to comment.
"I'm not sure," Ravens coach Brian Billick said about the defensive call. "I don't know what we had on or who was supposed to be eyeballing who."
Ravens middle linebacker Ray Lewis, who ran down Flutie several times yesterday, said there was no call to shadow Flutie.
"Nope, that was not what we called," Lewis said. "We played what we called. He made a play, we didn't. That's it."
Overall, the defense had little to do with this loss. The Bills (5-3) scored their 10 fourth-quarter points off two turnovers by the Ravens' Tony Banks, who was making his first start at quarterback. Buffalo was only 5-for-18 on third downs and averaged just 3.5 yards per play. The Ravens (2-5) sacked Flutie three times and harassed him throughout the game. The Ravens controlled the tempo of the game until a fourth-quarter meltdown.
"Obviously, this is a very tough, emotional loss for us," Billick said. "It was hard-fought; it's very frustrating, it's very difficult. I guess it's my inexperience as a head coach not knowing what to say to them to ease their pain. All I can say is that we have to learn from our mistakes and go back to work."
That's all the Ravens can do, because they have no big-play personnel on offense. They had only 12 first downs and 200 yards of offense. They were 4-for-16 in third-down situations and had 118 yards passing.
Banks, who completed 13 of 34 passes, made his first glaring mistake trying to throw the ball away, but he was hit and safety Kurt Schulz intercepted the fluttered pass and returned it 26 yards to the Ravens' 34 with 12: 57 left in the game and the Ravens ahead 10-3. Thirteen plays later, Steve Christie pulled the Bills to 10-6 on a 40-yard field goal with 6: 21 remaining.
Then with 3: 25 left in the game, Banks was flushed from the pocket by outside linebacker Gabe Northern, who also ran down Banks from the back and caused a fumble that linebacker Sam Rogers recovered at the Bills' 48 and carried to the Ravens' 45.
That play set up the touchdown pass to Linton.
"I was slowing up because I knew I had the first down," Banks said. "Gabe Northern just made a great play. It was a great play by him and a not-so-great play by me. On the interception in the fourth quarter, I was trying to throw the ball away, but the guy hit me and the ball fluttered out. It's not what I expected. It's certainly not what I went to bed dreaming about last night. If you fumble, you fumble. I can feel Coach Billick's disappointment."
Banks might be feeling Billick's wrath this morning. He was forced to play Banks because of the ineffectiveness of Scott Mitchell and Stoney Case. Billick has yet to be very pointed in criticism of Case, but he didn't hold back on Banks. It was pointed out that Banks had 46 fumbles and 42 interceptions during three years in St. Louis because "he didn't take care of the ball."
"Yes, and in two years prior to that in college and two years prior to that in junior college and three years prior to that in high school and however far back he has played," Billick said. "You have got to take care of the football."
When asked who his starting quarterback would be next week against the Cleveland Browns, Billick hinted that it would be Banks.
Then he added: "I'm not going to make these decisions arbitrarily. We'll just continue to evaluate. I'm sure you're tired of hearing it, and the fans are tired of hearing it. I know I'm tired of saying it. I don't want to bounce from week to week. We'll have to see."
Banks later replied: "That's Coach Billick's decision."
Banks, though, was only part of the problem in the passing game. The offensive line did a fine job of pass blocking in the first three quarters, but either the play-calling was bad, Buffalo played great defenses or the wide receivers just weren't getting open.
The Ravens receivers can expect the same coverage for the rest of the season. Cornerbacks are going to jam them at the line of scrimmage because they don't feel the trio of Justin Armour, Jermaine Lewis and Qadry Ismail has the talent to beat them.
Speedster Patrick Johnson did not play after Billick made him inactive, and Armour dropped three passes yesterday. Banks had to throw away several others because of tight coverage. Twice Ismail was called for pass interference.
"I was talking to the offense in the second half, and I figured 10 points wasn't going to win the game," Banks said. "We didn't make enough plays in the passing game to pull it out. This was a tough way to lose a football game. It seems that we're all taking turns making mistakes. You've got to make plays in the passing game."
The Ravens made several, but not enough. Armour caught a 7-yard touchdown pass with five minutes remaining in the first quarter, and Ismail finished with five receptions for 54 yards.
But the Ravens' only other score came on Matt Stover's 37-yard field goal at the end of the first quarter. Stover's 51-yard attempt was blocked with 2: 03 left in the first half.
It was just another frustrating play by a team that has had more than 200 yards passing in one game this season. Billick has tried just about everything, from playing a wide-open offense to going conservative.
"It doesn't matter how you lose; a loss is a loss. They all hurt," said Ravens defensive end Michael McCrary. "Somehow or another, we've got to improve on our mistakes. Losses just leave you with a sickening feeling in your stomach."