PITTSBURGH—The Ravens don't have a quarterback controversy, they have a quarterback problem. They have one of the NFL's highest-paid offensive lines, yet one of the most unproductive. They've tried countless offensive formations, yet nothing works.On a day when the defending AFC Central-champion Pittsburgh Steelers were missing five starters and were booed constantly by the crowd of 58,620 at Three Rivers Stadium, the Ravens turned in another dismal offensive display and lost, 16-6.
If you missed the game, break out the tape of the Ravens' 12-8 loss to Tennessee last week. It was the same inept offense, one that hasn't scored a touchdown in the past 10 quarters. Only this time the Ravens (2-4) gave up seven sacks. They had just 230 yards of total offense and converted only seven of 19 third-down plays.
Eric Zeier. Jim Harbaugh. Zeier again. Harbaugh again.
The best quarterback not to play may have been the one calling the plays, quarterbacks coach Don Strock.
And then, after losing their second straight game and falling to 1-4 in the division, some of the Ravens had the audacity to talk of a playoff run. Huh? How about winning one game?
"We just keep digging and digging a hole, and how much deeper can we go?" said defensive end Michael McCrary. "One more loss and we're probably out of it."
It doesn't get any easier, because the Ravens play the Packers in Green Bay on Sunday.
"We have to keep working to make it happen," said cornerback Rod Woodson. "We've got to make plays. Coulda, woulda, shoulda if, if, if. We'rejust not getting it done. I know we go to Green Bay next week and they've lost two in a row. They'll be looking for a win. We have to be looking for one, also."
The Ravens could have walked away with a win yesterday. Pittsburgh's offense was just as horrendous as the Ravens'. The Steelers (4-2), playing without injured running back Jerome Bettis (knee), had only 241 yards of total offense and were only 5-for-16 in third-down situations. Quarterback Kordell Stewart was just 12 of 27 passing for 196 yards.
But the Steelers made several big plays that turned out to be the difference. Two of them occurred in the opening minutes of the second half. First, Pittsburgh's David Dunn returned the opening kickoff 41 yards to the Steelers' 40.
Three plays later, wide receiver Charles Johnson got tangled with rookie cornerback Duane Starks along the right sideline, but then left him standing near the Ravens' 40-yard line before pulling in a 55-yard touchdown pass from Stewart with 13: 59 left in the third quarter to give the Steelers a 10-6 lead.
It was a simple hitch-and-fly pattern off a play-action fake. It was Pittsburgh's first touchdown pass in 15 quarters covering nearly 232 minutes.
In a game like yesterday's, one touchdown was worth a lot more than seven points.
"We were ahead 6-3 at halftime and we were happy with that," said Ravens coach Ted Marchibroda. "The first thing I mentioned to our special teams at halftime was that we have a tendency to let down, and then we come out and give up a big play.
"With Bettis out, I knew this was going to be a game where a lot of points weren't scored. But we were never able to sustain any long drives."
Starks, the team's top draft pick in April, said: "The touchdown was a fluke. When he came off the ball, he just ran straight at me and grabbed me and took me down. He got away with it and got open."
The Steelers had only one other big play in the second half, a 27-yard pass from Stewart to receiver Courtney Hawkins with 5: 22 left in the game. A 15-yard face-mask penalty was added on by cornerback DeRon Jenkins, who was beaten on the play.
The Steelers added a 42-yard field goal from Norm Johnson four plays later and then converted Jermaine Lewis' fumble on the ensuing kickoff into a 40-yard Johnson field goal that pushed the Pittsburgh lead to 16-6 with 2: 19 remaining.
"We didn't make crucial plays at crucial times," Marchibroda said. "Once it started to steamroll, it just got worse. I hoped that we would have executed better instead of beating ourselves, but that didn't happen and that cost us the ballgame."
The Ravens' defense played well for the second straight week, with middle linebacker Ray Lewis and strong safety Stevon Moore each finishing with nine tackles. The Ravens blitzed hard and often, and took away the cutback lanes from running back Richard Huntley (21 carries, 52 yards).
The Ravens harassed Stewart with five sacks and a lot of pressure, with Jones collecting two sacks. But the defense got little help from the offense.
"You're tempted to [criticize] sometimes, but that can cause division among your team," said Ravens strong-side linebacker Peter Boulware. "In this game, a team can go out and score a lot of points on you and then the offense is asking, 'Why can't you stop them?' You win as a team, you go down as a team."
This is a team in need of help, especially with an offense that is the worst in the league at scoring points once inside the opposition's 20-yard line. Yesterday, the Ravens' best opportunity for a touchdown came late in the third quarter with the ball at the Steelers' 14-yard line.
On second-and-eight, Zeier overthrew wide-open receiver Floyd Turner on a slant-in pattern. On the next play, Zeier threw a pass intended for Michael Jackson off the chest of defensive end Kevin Henry, the deflection going to Steelers cornerback Dewayne Washington, who returned the ball 43 yards to the Pittsburgh 47 with 3: 34 left in the third quarter.
A field goal at that point would have cut Pittsburgh's lead to 10-9.
"We improvised on that play and we changed that route," Zeier said of overthrowing Turner. "Floyd made a little adjustment, but I thought he was doing something else. We were just trying to make things happen. With the interception, it just hit off a Pittsburgh player and went right to them."
Marchibroda put Harbaugh in the game for Zeier after that, but Harbaugh couldn't provide a spark, either. Harbaugh was 0-for-6 and had two interceptions. He took a beating, too. Pittsburgh has a dominating defense, but right offensive tackle Orlando Brown, left guard Wally Williams and center Jeff Mitchell had their share of pass-blocking problems.
Zeier, who completed 17 of 26 passes for 173 yards, came back in to run the Ravens' offense with 2: 19 left in the game ,but was removed with less than a minute remaining after injuring his thumb.
When asked who would be his starter next week, Marchibroda said he will wait until Wednesday to decide.
But that's only part of the Ravens' problems. They failed to go to maximum protection, or use sprint-outs or roll-outs for Zeier to counter the Steelers' blitz, and still didn't have receivers open when they had time to throw.
The Ravens were conservative on offense again, and their running game has become predictable. Off tackle left. Off tackle right. Inside an opponent's 20, the Ravens appear afraid to gamble and instead settle for field goals. And their options are limited as far as changing personnel.
"I don't think we need major reshuffling," Williams said. "We need to run the stuff we do best. When we come into a game situation, we don't run the stuff we do best, we're not going to have positive results. We can't run outside right, outside left every play. I think we do a lot of good stuff when we cut the defense, running counters, just doing stuff we practice.
"When I pull and Black [right guard Jeff Blackshear] pulls, it comes together pretty well. Pittsburgh is an aggressive defense. They have a lot of guys moving around in their zone blitz. They're trying to fool us. We got to try something to fool them, too."