ST. LOUIS—The new era of Ravens football looked painfully similar to the old one.
Quarterback Scott Mitchell was as ineffective as Jim Harbaugh. The offensive line was inept, but yesterday there was no Wally Williams or Orlando Brown to blame. An inexperienced secondary was burned for 316 yards passing by a quarterback named Kurt Warner, who had completed only four passes in the league before yesterday's game, his first as a starter.One might say these were the same old Ravens after yesterday's embarrassing 27-10 loss to the St. Louis Rams before 62,100 at the Trans World Dome, but that might be an insult to the 1998 team. After going unbeaten in four preseason games under first-year coach Brian Billick and creating a hysteria that hasn't been seen in Baltimore since the franchise moved to the city nearly four years ago, the Ravens came to grips with reality yesterday.
Ray Lewis. As several members of the Ravens' front office walked off the field, there was anguish and disappointment on the reddened face of team president David Modell, but still a calmness and confidence about Billick.
"To a degree, I'm concerned about the team's psyche, but that's my job to get them ready every week," Billick said. "I can get them ready as a team, get them focused, but they are also going to have to handle this individually. All we can do is come back after something like this and regroup on Monday and decide what happened and make our corrections and get ready for Pittsburgh. You don't have enough paper to list my frustrations."
The frustration reached its peak in the fourth quarter when cornerback DeRon Jenkins blitzed and forced a fumble by Warner that the Ravens recovered at the Rams' 30-yard line with 11: 13 remaining and trailing only 17-10. But running back Priest Holmes, who looked indecisive most of the day, was tackled for a 6-yard loss on a screen pass.
On second down, Mitchell was pressured by defensive end Kevin Carter and threw the ball away. On third down, Mitchell threw short to Justin Armour. Matt Stover's 54-yard field-goal attempt was wide right, and the Rams' Jeff Wilkins then showed Stover how it is done by kicking a 51-yarder on St. Louis' next possession.
Warner secured the game for St. Louis with a 20-yard touchdown pass to Torry Holt with 2: 40 left in the game.
"It looked like the Philadelphia game [preseason opener]," Billick said of his offense, which had only 223 yards. "Lack of execution. When you are on the road there are certain things and certain calls that are going to be tough. That's no excuse. We have executed better and performed better. We have shown that, so I am very disappointed across the board, not just offensively."
But let's start with the offense. Mitchell's performance was horrendous. He completed 17 of 40 passes for 188 yards and one touchdown, a 28-yarder to Brandon Stokley to pull the Ravens within 17-10 with 15 seconds left in the third quarter.
He constantly threw behind receivers or overthrew them and several times fumbled while in the fetal position when the pocket was about to collapse, including one time when he tried to switch hands while being tackled. His most inexcusable mistake came three plays after Lewis intercepted a Warner pass intended for Ricky Proehl and returned it 60 yards to the Rams' 33 with 17 seconds left in the first quarter.
On third-and-six, Mitchell escaped pressure up the middle and started to run. But at the last second he shuffled a pass over the head of fullback Chuck Evans to his right that was intercepted by cornerback Todd Lyght, who lateraled to Taje Allen, who ran 36 yards down to the Ravens' 41.
Adding injury to insult, the Ravens lost Pro Bowl left tackle Jonathan Ogden on the play when he bruised his left hip while trying to make a tackle. Ogden's condition will be evaluated daily, but the Ravens had a hard time recovering from Mitchell's mistake. The Rams turned it into a touchdown when tight end Roland Williams beat safety Kim Herring in the right corner of the end zone for a 6-yard pass and 10-0 lead.
"I moved up in the pocket," Mitchell said. "The guy that was covering Chuck was coming around and tried to tackle me. I just tried to flip the ball up over the guy. It just wasn't a smart play in that situation. I was trying to make a play. The biggest thing is not to panic. We've got 15 games left. This isn't a sprint. It's a marathon. The troops have to rally together."
Mitchell, whom Rams defensive tackle D'Marco Farr described as a big "water buffalo," wasn't the only Raven having problems. The offensive line gave up five sacks and allowed Mitchell to be hurried several times. Tight end Lovett Purnell dropped a possible 40-yard touchdown pass down the left sideline late in the third quarter. Holmes had 52 yards rushing on 12 attempts, but at times didn't know whether to cut inside or outside. The team's best receiver, Jermaine Lewis, had only three passes tossed his way and the Rams failed to punt to him four times, choosing to kick out of bounds.
"There are certain intangibles that go with an offense that we don't have yet," said receiver Justin Armour, who caught four passes for 76 yards. "It's that clicking, knowing where the ball is going to be. It's there sometimes, it's not there at other times. Patience is going to be a big thing for us. Don't give up on each other. Believe in each other as the games roll on."
But the ball didn't want to bounce the Ravens' way. Linebacker Peter Boulware had a chance to recover the fumble caused by Jenkins and score a touchdown, but lost it through his hands. Rookie Chris McAlister had a chance to return a Warner interception for a touchdown midway in the second quarter, but was accidentally tripped and shoved by safety Rod Woodson, who was trying to block for him at the 6-yard line even though McAlister had a clear route to the end zone. Instead, the Ravens had to settle for a Stover 25-yard field.
"I got caught up with my own man. My legs got tangled up," McAlister said. "I should have been in the end zone. I saw nothing but the big Ram in the end zone."
McAlister's peers in the secondary didn't have much success either. That was more disappointing than the offensive failure because everyone expected the offense to struggle. Warner joined a list of other no-name quarterbacks such as Rob Johnson, Glenn Foley, Steve Stenstrom, Bobby Hoying and Craig Welihan who have beaten the Ravens. Early in camp some of the Ravens talked about having an "elite defense."
Elite defenses don't get beat by Warner. Elite defenses don't allow eight passes of 15 yards or more. They don't let Isaac Bruce (eight receptions for 92 yards) repeatedly run curls and slant-in patterns over the middle, or let running back Marshall Faulk (seven for 72 yards) catch passes over the middle again and again. It's the same strategy used by the Carolina Panthers and the New York Giants in the last two preseason games.
And the Ravens still haven't stopped it.
"We can't even spell the word right now," said Billick of the elite reference.
Ray Lewis echoed the same sentiments. He had 14 tackles and played possibly the most inspired of any of his teammates.
"You can come into the game and think you're going to be good, but thinking and achieving are two different things," Lewis said. "Good means consistent and we're not consistent yet."