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OWINGS MILLS — Derrick Mason broke off his pattern sharply, dashing to his left and extending his arms to gather in yet another patented first down on a sideline catch.
The offense was marching downfield, albeit slowly, with the football and the chains remaining in motion as this familiar scenario unfolded during the Baltimore Ravens’ unexpected 27-13 loss to the Cleveland Browns.
And while the Ravens’ adaptation of the West Coast offense has generated steady yardage, quick, vertical strikes downfield have become extremely rare occurrences.
Months after trumpeting the advent of a more explosive, dynamic offense, the Ravens’ passing game has actually emerged as a short-distance, ball-control outfit that ranks ninth in passing yards with 237.8 per contest. Yet, the Ravens are 23rd in passing net yards per pass play with a 6.03 average.
"You’ve got to define vertical," Ravens coach Brian Billick said after practice Thursday. "We’re fourth in the league in plays over 10 yards. Yeah, you would like to get that big shot down the field. That would be the next step for us to truly open up the offense."
The lack of long-distance connections for three-time Pro Bowl quarterback Steve McNair is illustrated sharply by Mason’s reliable, albeit non-combustible production.
While Mason is tied for second in the NFL with the San Diego Chargers’ Antonio Gates with 33 receptions, he’s averaging just 8.7 yards per reception. The closest thing to approximating a true deep threat is second-year wideout Demetrius Williams, who’s averaging a team-high 15.3 yards per catch on 12 receptions.
"It will come," said Mason who ranks second in the AFC on third downs with 12 catches. "The thing about it that people don’t see on the field is the opportunities that you get. It’s not like we’re not calling them. We’re not going to force the ball down the field because of what the media is saying or what people outside of this building are saying.
"We force it down the field, we throw interceptions and, all of a sudden, it’s, ‘Why’s Steve throwing interceptions?’ So, we’re not going to force anything. We’re going to take what the defense gives us."
McNair has thrown just two interceptions in 114 throws, a rate of 1.8 percent per attempt.
Yet, the Ravens’ longest pass completion this season is backup quarterback Kyle Boller’s 37-yard pass to Pro Bowl tight end Todd Heap, who’s averaging 10.1 yards per catch on 19 receptions.
Mason’s longest catch is an 18-yarder. Running back Willis McGahee and Williams have 30-yard and 26-yard receptions, respectively.
One negative factor has been starting wide receiver Mark Clayton being hobbled with calf, ankle and toe injuries, curtailing his impact to nine catches for 76 yards.
"We’re just priding ourselves on moving the ball and doing what’s necessary," Clayton said. "I believe the big play will come. I believe we’re fine. The next step we need to take as an offense to get to the elite is to score in the red zone. We do that and we’re going to win a whole lot of games."
For a Baltimore offense that ranks 27th in red-zone percentage (five touchdowns in 14 trips inside opponents’ 20-yard line for a 35.7 percentage), the lack of a viable deep passing game has consistently put them in position only to not capitalize on prime scoring opportunities.
Traditionally, the Ravens have dominated time of possession statistics. Collectively, McNair and Boller are completing 64.8 percent of their throws.
Still, McNair has been contending with a nagging groin pull that appears to have limited his ability to step into his throws. Over the last few years, McNair hasn’t been particularly effective on the deep ball.
"You look at what we’ve done offensively and we’re doing pretty well," McNair said. "We’re moving the ball. The thing we’ve got to work on now is just our finishing. I think that’s the main, important key.
"We’re completing passes, we’re converting third downs and we’re just not putting the ball in the end zone. We’ve just got to execute a lot better once we get the ball inside the 20."
Twenty-seven of McNair’s completions have been between 10 and 19 yards, but he’s had just two between 20 and 29 yards and one between 30 and 39 yards.
McNair ranks 26th in the NFL average gain per pass play and is tied for 24th overall with two touchdown passes.
"Eventually, it’s going to break for us," Mason said. "We do need to get some plays down the field. We might have to do it in different ways, but not just for the sake of throwing the ball down the field and chucking it up. We’re not going to do it."
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.