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Ravens rest on run game


He came to the Baltimore Ravens with the reputation for being one of the game's offensive geniuses. Then, he was hailed for putting his ego aside and playing to the strength of the Ravens' roster, which was decidedly on the defensive side of the ball.

But five years, one Super Bowl title and a lot of bad quarterbacks later, Ravens fans are beginning to ask of head coach Brian Billick: Where's the offense?

Witness this criticism by a Baltimore Sun columnist: "The Ravens don't run picks, flood zones or use crossing patterns. They can blame that on Boller's inexperience, but those types of plays have seldom been a part of this offense. It's a bad system, with bad receivers, bad coaching and a rookie quarterback who creates a lot of fear whenever he drops back."

You wouldn't know from those remarks the 4-3 Ravens lead the AFC North Division, but even though Billick has failed to give Ravens fans the passing game they expected, he has given them the game's most powerful rushing attack, as Jamal Lewis needs just 23 yards this Sunday to reach the 1,000-yard mark at the exact mid-point in the season.

In Billick's previous four seasons as Ravens coach, his team's best offensive performance was a 14th overall ranking in 2001. His offense was 26th overall last year, 16th in the Ravens' Super Bowl title season in 2000, and 24th in 1999. And those rankings were bolstered by a traditionally strong running game. The Ravens' passing attack was 27th in the league in 2002, 16th in 2001, 22nd in 2000 and 25th in Billick's first year as head coach.

This year, the Ravens are 21st in overall offense, with the number one running game and the 31st-ranked passing attack. That last number isn't what Ravens fans expected when Billick left the point-a-minute Vikings following the 1998 season.

This Sunday, Jaguars coach Jack Del Rio returns to Baltimore, where he was Billick's linebackers coach in that 2000 title season, for a game that'll pit two rookie quarterbacks against each other. Byron Leftwich was the seventh pick of last April's draft. The Ravens, who had hoped Leftwich would slip to them, made Kyle Boller the 19th overall pick.

It's a game that should offer an interesting comparison. Which quarterback was the better pick? Which one is developing most quickly?

For Del Rio, making the move to Leftwich wasn't as difficult. After all, the Jaguars are not a division title and playoff contender. But for Billick, casting his lot with Boller has been the subject of great criticism.

The Ravens are a team with the game's best running back, Jamal Lewis. They are a team with a huge payroll on the defensive side of the ball, and though there are indications middle linebacker Ray Lewis isn't as feared as he was a few years ago, he and Peter Boulware still have the ability to dominate a game. Add to the Ravens' defensive cast first-round pick Terrell Suggs, and critics are asking: Why didn't Billick bring in a veteran quarterback? Why is he seemingly wasting a great running game and a great defense on a rookie quarterback?

Simply put, Billick made the decision in the preseason to move on with the team's future at the quarterback position, and his players support that move.

"I'll live and die with my rookie quarterback," Ray Lewis said. "I don't care how many turnovers our offense has. What he showed in that fourth quarter (against Cincinnati) sets us up for November and December, when the playoffs come around. He is a warrior and is going to fight."

But Boller has been somewhat of a turnover machine to date this season. Even though Billick has kept Boller's pass attempts to a minimum, the rookie from Cal has thrown seven interceptions and was the AFC's worst-ranked passer through week seven. Making matters worse, his two fumbles in Cincinnati were the catalyst to an embarrassing, 34-26 loss. Boller has thrown for fewer than 100 yards in three of the Ravens' first seven games.

"When you're running the ball as effectively as we are, you've got to continue to do that and tell teams to stop us," Boller said.

"You know we're going to run the football. You know what plays we run; either to the outside or the middle. You just have to stop it," said Jamal Lewis, who has a string of six consecutive 100-yard games.

"These guys know you have to have balance to a certain degree. Those of you who want to intimate that there's frustration or angst in the locker room or division, you're wrong," Billick told reporters.

But there would seem to be a growing frustration among Ravens fans and division among critics. Are the Ravens going to waste?

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