By Joe Platania
The mere act of getting under someone's skin, to irritate them until they can't take it anymore, is usually called "pushing someone's buttons." But if the wrong button is pushed, a deadly bomb goes off.
The Ravens, a team loaded with Super Bowl-caliber talent on paper, certainly have not intended to push coach Brian Billick's buttons, especially the one marked "panic." However, after nearly a half-season of underachievement, they headed into this week's bye at 4-3.
To make things worse, that record was accomplished against a mostly-soft schedule, the meat of which -- among others, features San Diego, New England, Indianapolis, Seattle and Pittsburgh twice -- is coming after the week off.
Cincinnati (2-4) and Miami (0-7) are the only teams the Ravens will face in the final nine weeks that currently have losing records.
A 10-6 finish -- perhaps even a 9-7 log -- could be enough to get Baltimore into the playoffs for a second straight season, third time in a five-year span and fifth in an eight-year period.
After all, the AFC may be the more loaded conference, but the East Division is a one-team race (New England), and the West has only a mediocre Kansas City team over .500. That cuts into the number of possible wild-card contenders.
But a 10-6 or 9-7 finish, which would likely not earn Baltimore a home playoff game, would still fall short of where most preseason expectations had this team finishing.
The Ravens have been plagued by fourth-quarter meltdowns, questionable play-calling, dozens of troublesome penalties and a Pro Bowl roster's worth of injuries. That's why Billick threw a mushroom cloud over his team in the locker room after Sunday's 19-14 loss at Buffalo.
It's time for the Ravens to duck, cover and do something about it -- without panicking.
But what can they do? A few suggestions:
FOCUS ON WINNING THE DIVISION
November in the National Football League is like Saturday at The Masters. It's a time to move into position for a strong finish.
Naturally, no playoff berth can even be discussed about without getting control of the AFC North Division first. With every team playing only six of its 16 annual games in the division, those wins have become more precious -- and the losses more devastating -- since the current alignment was adopted in 2002.
Not only that, with all four teams bunched within two games of one another, thanks to Pittsburgh's Sunday-night loss at Denver, and with the Ravens getting return matches at home against all three division opponents, this is a prime opportunity for Baltimore to make its move.
That's why the first post-bye game, Monday night, Nov. 5 at Pittsburgh, is extremely important.
First, it's the final division road game of the year, against the first-place team. Secondly, the Ravens are 7-4 after bye weeks, having won their last five in a row.
The Ravens, known for their "next game" focus, lost some of that last week by pointing many of their injured players towards the Steelers game and seemingly not taking Buffalo seriously enough.
And with home games against two teams that have beaten them, Cincinnati and Cleveland, following the trip to Pittsburgh, they will need to get their tunnel vision back in a big way because the road game at San Diego closes the month.
But the odds are in the Ravens' favor.
When playing the second game of a divisional home-and-home series in Baltimore, the Ravens are 3-1 against Cincinnati and 3-2 each against Cleveland and Pittsburgh, a total log of 9-5.
The return match against the Steelers takes place on the final regular season Sunday (Dec. 30), the third time such a momentous scenario has been set up by the league schedule.
However, the first two games, in Pittsburgh in 2002 and here the following season, turned out to be much less relevant than they were meant to be. Here's hoping this year's season-closer has more meaning.
BE A RUN-FIRST TEAM AGAIN
Many fans have expressed concern about Billick's play calling.
The final straw was Sunday's final sequence in Buffalo when the team had a second-and-1 situation at the Bills' 49 after the two-minute warning.
On second down, quarterback Kyle Boller missed Demetrius Williams on a slant, throwing behind him for what would have been roughly a 20-yard gain.
On third down, Boller tried to find Mark Clayton for what would have been a five-yard gain in the left flat, but the pass was tipped at the line.
On fourth down, Boller's occasional inaccuracy showed up again when his loft for Musa Smith on the right side was overthrown.
Former Buffalo running back Willis McGahee, for whom the team traded two draft picks last March, had gained a season-high 114 yards, the second-best total in the entire league last Sunday after Cincinnati's Kenny Watson hung 130 yards on the New York Jets.
Billick has admitted that he wasn't aware McGahee (AFC-leading 639 yards, 146 carries, 4.3 yards per carry) was such a physical runner. Despite public utterances to the contrary, McGahee was so fired up to face the Bills and their booing fans that he didn't let 11 yards on his first eight carries stop him from busting out a 46-yard touchdown run, the Ravens' longest gain this season.
It's worth noting that through seven games, the Ravens have passed the ball a staggering 87 more times than they've run it (including sacks allowed). Sunday, Buffalo ran on 33 plays, passed it 23 and became the first team this year to beat the Ravens in time of possession.
In the 2000 Super Bowl season (including playoffs), Baltimore ran the ball 18 more times than they passed it, a near-perfect balance. Not only that, the Ravens are 4-0 when McGahee carries the ball 20 times. He had 19 carries in Buffalo.
IMPROVE THE TURNOVER RATIO
The Ravens, authors of a middling plus-2 ratio through seven games, have fumbled 10 times and lost seven of them.
However, that's a bit deceiving.
Four of the fumbles came from quarterback Steve McNair, who doesn't figure to see the majority of the snaps the rest of the year if his strained groin doesn't heal. One each can be blamed on fullback Le'Ron McClain, who doesn't carry the ball much, and return specialist Yamon Figurs, who had been sure-handed most of the year until he ran into the bright sun and wind in Buffalo.
But when it comes to takeaways, there haven't been as many because of a lack of pressure.
Bills quarterback Trent Edwards seemed to have a lot of time to hit his pair of extremely underrated receivers, Lee Evans and Josh Reed. When he was able to do that, it opened up the run game -- even against the Ravens' stout run-stuffers -- for big, agile rookie back Marshawn Lynch.
The Ravens only managed to hit Edwards three times. The hits yielded two sacks, but the early-season pass-rush problems reared their head again. If Baltimore isn't reaching the quarterback, the chances for causing turnovers dwindle.
Even with nine sacks in their last three games -- thanks to a welcome return to a more aggressive and less-disguised rush -- and 11 different players recording a quarterback takedown, the team has just 15 sacks, helping to account for the lower-than-usual turnover ratio.
Among AFC contenders, Jacksonville and San Diego's turnover numbers aren't much better at plus-3, but New England upped its conference-leading number to plus-8 and the Super Bowl champion Indianapolis Colts stood at plus-7 heading into their Monday game with the Jaguars.
On the bright side, seven of the 11 starters have at least one sack. They have come from every level as well: six from the defensive line, five from the linebackers and four from the secondary. The Ravens are one of just three teams to have 10 players each get at least one sack. Washington is one of the other two.
The third? Pittsburgh -- yet another reason Nov. 5 looms so very large. The Steelers' turnover number is plus-4.
CUT DOWN ON THE PENALTIES
One big reason the Ravens' record isn't as gaudy as it should be after seven games against inferior opposition is that those opponents have played more disciplined football, committing only 33 penalties when facing Baltimore.
The Ravens have been flagged for 438 penalty yards on a staggering 57 accepted penalties, the most in the AFC and only two fewer than the NFL-worst Arizona Cardinals (59). Dallas is the only other team in the league over the half-century mark with 53.
That simply will not allow the Ravens to make headway against the AFC's elite.
Despite a slow start, San Diego has been flagged only 34 times, New England and Pittsburgh have 31 penalties each and not including Monday night's game, the Colts have been near-perfect with an NFL-low 20 infractions in five games.
The nature of some of the calls has to trouble the Ravens' coaching staff as well.
It's a safe bet none of the real AFC contenders have seen their defensive players jump offsides five times in a single game, as the Ravens did Sunday. Those infractions went against five different players as well.
Not only that, two special teams penalties didn't help the field-position cause, especially with Buffalo's Brian Moorman netting 45 yards per punt and keeping Baltimore pinned back deep.
There have been delay-of-game calls, illegal formation infractions and numerous pass interference calls, including a questionable one on cornerback Samari Rolle last Sunday.
BE MORE ACCOUNTABLE
This year, the Ravens have gotten away from several of their own basic philosophies, such as running the ball, rushing the passer, playing with discipline and creating turnovers.
But one thing Billick constantly preaches to his team is accountability. However, has Billick, with his offensive reputation -- regarding football, not arrogance -- held himself accountable?
Many fans who strongly dislike Billick may not know this or have chosen not to hear it, but the coach has said, "The buck stops with me," and "It's on me" many times.
That said, it's unlikely that he will fire an offensive coordinator for the second straight year during a bye week, as he did to Jim Fassel in 2006. That's because, as everyone knows, Billick himself is the offensive coordinator in the first season of a new four-year contract.
Owner Steve Bisciotti is known for running businesses in a contemplative, careful manner, one that has brought him much success. He is not as prone to rash judgments or decisions as the knee-jerk fan base would like him to be.
On top of that, McNair has taken great pains to point out that film study has shown the Ravens are running the same plays everyone else does in what is definitely a copycat league. The execution just hasn't been there, at least not yet.
But if it doesn't come soon, everyone at Owings Mills might need to keep that panic button handy.
Issue 2.43: October 25, 2007