Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Ravens Throw Away Old Script

It appeared to be the same exhausted script in Cleveland on Sunday afternoon.

After taking an early 10-0 lead and outplaying the Cleveland Browns for much of the first half, the Baltimore Ravens allowed their lead to vanish after giving up a late second-quarter field goal to make the score 13-13 at halftime. It appeared the Ravens would summon the ghosts of last season, outplaying a team early, only to fall apart in the second half on their way to another loss.

Quarterback Joe Flacco and the offense promptly went three-and-out to begin the second half before Cleveland return specialist Josh Cribbs returned a punt 32 yards, setting up a Braylon Edwards 28-yard touchdown catch, giving Cleveland the 20-13 lead.

Here we go again. How would the offense respond? Another three-and-out. We’ve seen this story before.

It got worse when running back Jason Wright caught a 7-yard touchdown pass on the next drive. Cleveland was ahead 27-13. The Ravens’ secondary, decimated by injuries, appeared to be on life support, unable to slow the Browns’ passing attack. Surely, the offense would not be able to help the Ravens’ tiring defense.

Time to change the channel, right? Not so fast.

Flacco and the offense responded with an inspiring drive covering 11 plays and 79 yards. Fullback Le’Ron McClain’s 1-yard touchdown run put the Ravens in striking distance.

All right, at least they’re going to make it respectable.

Then, on the Ravens’ first drive of the fourth quarter, Flacco hit Derrick Mason on a 28-yard touchdown, tying the game.

Wait a minute. Is this really the Ravens’ offense?

The offense would orchestrate another drive for the game-winning field goal on their way to an impressive 37-27 victory in an AFC North battle. Besides keeping pace with the Pittsburgh Steelers and improving their playoff chances, the Ravens showed things are changing in Baltimore.

Over the past decade, the Ravens’ defense would always have to rescue the inept offense. A big play from Ray Lewis or Ed Reed would turn a surefire defeat into an unlikely victory for the Ravens. Very rarely would former coach Brian Billick’s offense provide the spark to make the difference late in the game.

So naturally, on those rare occasions when the defense would begin to falter, as it did in the third quarter on Sunday, there was little hope.

Enter Flacco and Cam Cameron. The rookie quarterback and new offensive coordinator have brought confidence to the defense’s ugly stepsibling. A group that for years was only asked to “not mess it up” for the defense is now showing it can contribute when the defense needs the assist.

Instead of panicking and abandoning the strong running game, as the coaching staff often did in past seasons when falling behind, Cameron stuck to the game plan. From the time Cleveland took a 27-13 lead until Matt Stover kicked a 22-yard field goal to put the Ravens ahead 30-27, the Ravens ran a total of 21 plays, 10 passes and 11 runs.

The defense needed a lift? No problem, said Cameron. If the offense is able to continue in doing so, the Ravens can be a factor in the AFC after few expected it.

How did the defense show its appreciation to the offense for picking up the slack? Linebacker Terrell Suggs crushed Cleveland’s faint hopes by intercepting a screen pass and returning it 42 yards for the touchdown.

So that’s what a team victory looks like.

Of course, the defense still reigns supreme, ranked 2nd in the NFL, while the offense is a modest 19th, but those paying close attention can see the subtle shift taking place.

It started back in April when general manager Ozzie Newsome drafted Flacco in the first round and running back Ray Rice in the second. Rice ran for 154 yards on Sunday in place of the injured Willis McGahee.

The Ravens are committed to building a more-balanced team, especially as the punishing defense continues to age. There is more work to do, as the front office still needs to address the wide receiver position in the offseason, but Sunday provided a glimpse into a brighter future for the Ravens’ offense.

Championship teams do not have to have a record-breaking defense to carry a struggling offense as the 2000 Ravens did. Teams like that only come along every 40 or 50 years. One unit cannot do it alone, as the Ravens have painfully learned in the seasons following their victory in Super Bowl XXXV. A championship team needs an offense, defense, and special teams that can provide a lift to one another when the game is on the line.

Sunday provided a sample of what coach John Harbaugh and Newsome envision for the Ravens moving forward.

"We're going to be a dynasty," said Harbaugh earlier this season. "If you're not willing to say it out loud, how do you expect to get there?"

Harbaugh’s plan is clear. While defense remains king in Baltimore, the offense is beginning to show it’s ready to play.

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