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OWINGS MILLS — As the Baltimore Ravens return to their training complex today, the reigning AFC North champions will don cleats again and try to regain their footing after stumbling into the bye week.
Following a bitter 19-14 loss to the Buffalo Bills and a drama-filled vacation that included middle linebacker Ray Lewis second-guessing Ravens coach Brian Billick’s play-calling and feuding loudly with former Baltimore linebacker Adalius Thomas, the Ravens have several brewing issues as they resume their practice routine.
"We are what we are," Billick said last week. "We earned the 4-3, both good and bad."
It was a mediocre showing overall as Baltimore managed just four victories by a combined margin of 31 points against teams that entered Sunday with a combined record of 6-21.
A sputtering red-zone offense only produced eight touchdowns with veteran kicker Matt Stover booting 18 field goals as the Ravens averaged 17.7 points to rank 24th in the league in scoring.
After an offseason where the Ravens forecasted a more explosive, dynamic attack, their identity has instead been a dink-and-dunk, ball-control approach that hasn’t fully utilized the talents of the receiving corps or running back Willis McGahee. And Billick’s play-calling has been second-guessed all week with Lewis emerging as the latest, high-profile critic on his weekly radio show.
Plus, there’s the specter of perhaps the league’s most difficult schedule on the horizon. Starting with a road clash for supremacy in the AFC North next Monday against the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Ravens begin a string of three pivotal consecutive division games.
"I don’t want to say we have to go back to the drawing board," offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden said. "We have to hone in on some things and make sure we are doing what needs to get done."
Baltimore entered Sunday ranked second in total defense, but has grown increasingly vulnerable to deep passes due to injuries in the secondary and a pass rush that has sorely missed defensive end Trevor Pryce due to a broken wrist that required surgery. The defense has yet to play an entire game against a quarterback who entered the season as the starter.
The Ravens have also dealt with the frustration of penalties, including multiple false-start infractions, and other assorted sloppiness.
Now, they’re hoping to engineer another turnaround to mirror last season’s 9-1 mark after last season’s bye where Billick fired offensive coordinator Jim Fassel and assumed the play-calling duties.
"We’re in the same situation we were last year going into the bye week, having some questions," wide receiver Derrick Mason said. "We just got to figure out what’s wrong. We have the talent. The coaching staff is great. They’ll figure it out. We’ll come off the bye week refocused and ready to go."
The Ravens are banking on improved health to rejuvenate their prospects midway through the season.
Every starter is expected to return for the Steelers game, including quarterback Steve McNair (back, groin), cornerback Chris McAlister (knee), offensive tackles Ogden (turf toe) and Adam Terry (sprained ankle), center Mike Flynn (knee), Pryce and tight end Todd Heap (hamstring).
"This bye week is good for us," outside linebacker Terrell Suggs said. "It’s a good week to get everyone rested and get everybody healthy."
Will a healthy McNair be enough?
Over his past six games, including last season’s regular-season finale against Buffalo and the playoff loss to the Indianapolis Colts, McNair has thrown two touchdowns with eight turnovers, including five interceptions.
One year removed from a franchise-record 13-3 campaign that earned the Ravens the second playoff seed in the AFC, the Ravens are facing a tough fight to make the playoffs.
Traditionally, 10-6 assures a team of a postseason berth. To get there, though, Baltimore will need to win at least six of its remaining nine games.
"It will be tough, but we know what we’re capable of," wide receiver Mark Clayton said. "It comes down to focusing, going out on the field and playing our type of football."
Although the Ravens have won their past five games following a bye during the Billick era, it’s debatable whether they’ll be able to rescue the season based on what’s looming on the horizon.
With the exception of the Miami Dolphins and the San Diego Chargers, the remainder of the Ravens’ opponents are either division leaders, including the Steelers, New England Patriots, defending Super Bowl champion Colts and the Seattle Seahawks, or have already defeated Baltimore this year like the Cincinnati Bengals and the Cleveland Browns.
"Can we be optimistic about our future, in terms of whoâ€™s coming back to us, and the fact that we get to play three division games? Yeah," Billick said. "So, we will impact the division standings, one way or the other over the next three games that we play.
"So, yeah, Iâ€™m pleased weâ€™re in that position, that we can play a game on Monday night for the lead in the division. Am I satisfied with 4-3? Of course not.â€
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.