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OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Brian Billick’s facial expressions revealed exactly how he felt about his football team’s lackluster performance, responding to miscues with a series of frowns, grimaces and lip-curling anger.
At several junctures Friday night during a disturbing game against the Minnesota Vikings that marked the worst preseason loss in franchise history, the Baltimore Ravens head coach covered his eyes in disgust.
In particular, a revamped offense led by former NFL Co-Most Valuable Player Steve McNair was absolutely bad enough to trigger this kind of reaction from Billick.
Billick didn’t mince words in expressing his displeasure to the players in the locker room following a 30-7 defeat, or during his postgame press conference. The Ravens’ regression was so complete that Billick is pondering drastic measures such as increasing the level of contact in practice and having starters play much longer than initially scheduled when they conclude the preseason Thursday against the Washington Redskins.
“Just a miserable performance,” Billick said. “It’s unfortunate to play that way, which is going to require us to do some things this next week that you would not like to do in the last week to correct the things we need to get corrected.
“The mental errors, the mistakes that were made were perplexing. Across the board, the hesitation, the lack of execution and the mental errors. Preseason or not, you can’t dismiss it. That was a regrettable performance.”
There are multiple reasons why Billick was so infuriated.
Tackling was shoddy, and receivers were allowed to roam through the secondary virtually at will. Plus, kicker Matt Stover missed a 46-yard field goal attempt wide right for his first miss of the preseason. Most glaring, though, was how McNair and wide receiver Mark Clayton weren’t on the same page on a route that Billick said was blown by Clayton.
The result was a 69-yard interception return for a touchdown by cornerback Fred Smoot, who pantomimed a Heisman trophy pose and bowled the football through the end zone.
“First of all, I lined up wrong so that’s a problem in itself,” Clayton said. “What we had on was a slant where I’m supposed to go inside and then back out. Smoot played it really well and was able to come under and pick it. I’m supposed to try to rip it out and I didn’t quite get the ball out.”
McNair didn’t stare Clayton down, but the receiver was clearly covered and the football probably shouldn’t have been thrown where it was or at all. “Maybe the ball should have been out in front of him, so Mark could have a better chance," McNair said. “We need to correct it and correct it fast. We still have some things to iron out.”
More than anything, the Ravens seemed particularly bothered by not matching the Vikings’ zest for contact and intensity. “Obviously when the score is that lopsided, there is obviously some intensity issues,” tight end Todd Heap said.
The Vikings were flying around to the football whereas the Ravens appeared hesitant, unsure and not nearly as aggressive as usual.
“We knew the crowd would be involved, we knew they would come out all pumped up and we didn’t do anything to quell the noise down or match their intensity,” McNair said. “It wasn’t about them. It was about what we did to ourselves.”
Meanwhile, the Ravens struggled to run the football. Musa Smith and Mike Anderson combined for just 18 yards on 11 carries as the offensive line was manhandled at times by the Vikings’ front seven. McNair was sacked twice and consistently pressured by defensive end Kenechi Udeze, who burst past right tackle Tony Pashos with his superior quickness. Offensive guard Keydrick Vincent was bull-rushed by massive nose guard Pat Williams for another sack.
McNair’s longest completion was an 11-yard pass to Clayton as the team ran a conservative version of the West Coast offense. The Ravens generated only 12 net yards in the first quarter, finishing with 74 yards on 21 plays in the first half.
“The mistakes can be corrected, but, at the same time, you feel like you’ve been in the preseason long enough to not make those mistakes,” McNair said. “We just need to be critical of ourselves and have thick skin when we look at the film.”
It was by far the Ravens’ rockiest outing of the preseason, a series of stumbles and bumbles, renewing questions about an inability to win on the road after going 0-8 on the road last season.
“We definitely know the importance of an away game because of our past performances,” offensive guard Edwin Mulitalo said. “You’re a professional and you don’t want it to be a factor, but it’s something we need to correct to get better on the road. We’ve got to get back to the drawing board and figure that out.”
The Ravens’ string of road losses is up to 11 regular-season games dating back to a November, 2004 overtime victory over the Jets.
When asked if the poor showing was related to being on the road, Billick replied: “That performance would have got your butt kicked at home as well.” This game marked Billick’s first return to Minnesota since 1998 when he concluded a record-setting tenure as the Vikings’ offensive coordinator.
“To be honest, it’s not about me, but what a disappointing way to come back and perform,” Billick said. “It’s very disappointing personally, but it’s not about me.”
Because of what transpired, the Ravens are on an accelerated mode to address their shortcomings.
Expanding the starters’ playing time could cut into reserves’ playing time and condense the evaluation period for the final roster cutdown to 53 players. It could also expose key players to potential injuries prior to the Sept. 10 season opener against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but it seems necessary to change the team’s outlook.
“You can’t go into the season with any doubts,” Heap said. “We’ve got to erase those doubts. We’ve got to gain confidence in one another and you don’t do it by playing that way.”
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times in Westminster, Maryland.