OWINGS MILLS — It has been six games since veteran wide receiver Derrick Mason leapt into the air to grab an acrobatic touchdown catch against the New England Patriots.
And that Oct.4 game at Gillette Stadium marks the last time that the Baltimore Ravens have scored a touchdown in the first quarter, an alarming trend that has puzzled and frustrated the players and coaching staff.
It has been a major contributing factor toward the Ravens losing four of the past six games. During that span, the slow starts have become a systemic problem with just 23 first-half points.
To not score in the first half against a one-win Cleveland Browns team with the last-ranked defense during Monday night’s 16-0 win may have been the low point for a stumbling offense.
"We’ve been talking about it and talking about it," offensive coordinator Cam Cameron said. "We’re well aware of it and there is no magic wand you can put on it. It’s just everybody collectively, coaches, starting with me.
"The start of that game, I got two plays in late and that kind of got us off-kilter, so I didn’t help the situation. I need to do a better job and then we all collectively just said at halftime, ‘Here’s what we’re going to do.’"
Over the past two weeks, the Ravens (5-4) have been shut out in the first half.
And penalties have compounded quarterback Joe Flacco appearing to be out of sync with his receivers and the offensive line faltering in pass protection.
Being tied with the Philadelphia Eagles for the fourth-most penalties in the league with 67 has been a big issue.
“Penalties, point blank," Mason said. "I guess it’s an old cliché, you shoot yourself in the foot, but we done shot ourselves in the foot a bunch of times. I’m surprised we still have got one. We can’t continue to say, ‘They’re correctible, they’re correctible,’ and not correct them.
"That’s like saying when a child grows up, as he’s growing up and he’s always getting in trouble and you figure, ‘I’ll straighten him out, I’ll straighten him out.’ Well, when he gets 15 to 16, you can’t straighten it out because he’s set in his ways."
The Ravens have gone 4-1 this season when they’ve scored first.
"We’ve got a good record when we score on our first drive," Mason said. "So, we’ve got to make sure we buckle down and pay attention to the little things and make sure we get off on a good start, especially this week.”
Plus, the Ravens have only produced two plays over 20 yards in the past two games.
That included Mason’s 41-yard reception from Flacco against the Browns’ suspect secondary.
At the beginning of the season, the Ravens generated a lot of big plays.
"You learn over time that you do all the detailed things and big things usually happen," Cameron said. "We just have to tie up all the loose ends."
The Ravens have also been struggling on third downs lately with just 5-of-24 converted over the past two weeks.
"We pride ourselves on converting third downs, and that’s what we stress in the offseason, two-a-days, and all that other stuff,” Mason said. “We know what we have to do on first and second down, but the critical down is third down to keep the drive going and to keep our defense off the field.
“If you look at the stats and whatnot throughout the NFL, if you convert at least two or three third downs, you put your team in the position to score points. So, that’s what we have to do. We’ve got to get back to getting it to third-and-manageable and converting on third down.”
Against the Browns, Flacco threw a season-low 18 passes. He completed 13 of them for 155 yards and no touchdowns.
“I don’t think we did too bad," Flacco said. "We just didn’t throw for a great amount of yards or anything like that. We just need to continue to grow as an offense and continue to get better each week.
"And I think there are going to be some weeks where you have a couple of yards and there are going to be some weeks where you have big games, and we just need to go out there and do whatever we can to win."
EDWARDS TO APPEAL FINE: Ravens defensive end Dwan Edwards plans to appeal his $5,000 fine for unnecessary roughness stemming from his crushing hit on Cleveland Browns wide receiver Joshua Cribbs on Monday night.
Edwards hit Cribbs with a forearm to the facemask on the final play of the Ravens’ 16-0 win.
"I hope it goes to a good charity," Edwards said. "Hopefully, I can get some of it back. I’ve tried to do that before with no luck."
According to an e-mail from a league spokesman, Edwards was fined because "he unnecessarily struck the opponent in the head area."
"Basically, it was for hitting him when he supposedly shouldn’t have reasonably expected it," Edwards said. “If he hadn’t gotten hurt, I doubt I would have gotten fined.”
Cribbs was carted off the field and taken to the hospital for tests on his neck and concussion symptoms and was released the following morning before returning to practice Thursday.
"He hit me and I hit him," Edwards said. "It was an unfortunate situation. He ran into where I was running."
Meanwhile, Browns quarterback Brady Quinn, who injured Ravens outside linebacker Terrell Suggs with an illegal block, was fined $10,000, "for unnecessary roughness, specifically, on an interception return play, he blocked the opponent low."
INJURY UPDATE: Tight end Todd Heap didn’t practice again Friday, the third practice he has missed this week due to a sore rib.
Listed as questionable, Heap said he will probably be a game-time decision. L.J. Smith is preparing to start in his place as Heap is considered unlikely to play.
"It’s still pretty sore," Heap said. "I definitely hope to be out there. It will be more of a game-time decision. It definitely has gotten better, but it’s definitely sore."
Heap has been wincing even while walking around the training complex.
He denied rumors that he has a cracked or broken rib.
"Yeah, it’s not broken," Heap said. "It’s a good thing."
Defensive tackle Haloti Ngata was limited in practice again due to a sprained right ankle and is listed as questionable.
Ngata expressed certainty that he would play this week after missing the past two games.
“Yeah, I’ll be playing on Sunday,” he said. “I feel pretty good. It’s a little sore, a little fatigued right now from running on it. I’ll warm it up and make sure it feels good.”
What’s different this week from last week when he insisted he would play?
“Last week, I felt pretty good,” Ngata said. “It just didn’t feel good warming up in pregame. This week is a little different. It feels a little better.”
The Ravens ruled out Suggs (sprained medial collateral ligament) and reserve running back and special-teams contributor Matt Lawrence (knee).
Center Matt Birk (neck), Flacco (knee) and linebackers Jarret Johnson (left shoulder) and Tavares Gooden (concussion) all participated fully and are listed as probable.
The Ravens aren’t worried about Flacco.
“He’s not an injury concern at all,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. “He’s fine.”
The Colts ruled out cornerback Kelvin Hayden (knee) and defensive back Aaron Francisco (ankle), wide receiver Anthony Gonzalez (knee), kicker Adam Vinatieri (knee) and offensive tackle Dan Fedrkeil (concussion).
The Colts listed defensive end Dwight Freeney (hip) as questionable as well as safety Antoine Bethea (foot), wide receiver Pierre Garcon (ankle), defensive tackle Eric Foster (back), tight end Gijon Robinson (concussion) and quarterback Jim Sorgi (right shoulder).
TOUGH ASSIGNMENT: Offensive tackles Jared Gaither and Michael Oher face a daunting task: protecting Flacco from Colts defensive ends Freeney and Robert Mathis.
They have combined for 18 sacks already this season with Freeney credited with 9 ½ sacks and Mathis having produced 8 1/2 sacks.
“It doesn’t slow down his clock,” Cameron said when asked if Flacco has to get rid of the football quicker. “This system was built on a compact drop, getting the ball out fast and you try to teach techniques that fit these types of defense. Again, it’s a lot easier said than done.
“So, our mindset is the balls just come out quick most of the time anyway. That will be important this game because these guys are two of the best in the business.”
Flacco has been sacked 19 times this season.
They do a good job of getting to the quarterback on the edge, but I have confidence in my two guys outside and I’m going to stand in there just like any other game and hold onto the ball as long as I need to in order for our guys to get open,” Flacco said. “Usually, I can get rid of the ball pretty quickly with our guys on the outside.”
QUICK HITS: Cornerback Samari Rolle, who’s on the physically unable to perform list and won’t return this season after undergoing another neck surgery recently, was at the team’s training complex Friday. He said that he hasn’t made a decision about whether he’s retiring. In the past, he has said he’s leaning in that direction. “There’s nothing new with me,” he said. … Harbaugh said that Paul Kruger, Suggs’ expected replacement, practiced well all week. … Harbaugh said he didn’t learn much about the Colts’ offense while coaching Peyton Manning in the Pro Bowl. “He was great with my daughter, Alison, on the bus, she was sitting on his lap,” Harbaugh said. “He’s just a really good guy. He’s very tight with information. We thought we were going to go out there and learn a little something about his offense. He gave us nothing, but he was pumping us for information. We gave him nothing. We had fun.” … Harbaugh said the Ravens didn’t receive an apology from the league for the officials’ gaffe that gave the Browns four timeouts. “They never say they’re sorry,” Harbaugh said. “I was disappointed in that, too. They don’t really apologize, but it was an honest mistake. I credit our guys in the box, our coaches in the box. They had that and we asked them about it, but I guess there was no procedure for them to get it straightened out.” … The Ravens feel good about how new kicker Billy Cundiff has gotten acclimated. “Yeah, the operation looks smooth,” Harbaugh said. “They got right on it.” … The Ravens are 4-1 when running back Willis McGahee carries the football seven or more times. “We like Willis,” Harbaugh said. “Willis is a very good player. I think there’s a good chance you’ll see a lot of Willis this weekend.” … The Ravens didn’t seem tense in the locker room this week despite the low margin of error to remain in the playoff hunt. “I think we have a confident team, and we’ve played a heck of a schedule,” Harbaugh said. “We’re playing three really good teams in a row here, starting with the Colts. You’re not going to be uptight about it. We’re not going to be intimidated. We’re excited to go play. We know we have a very good football team and we really want to prove it.” … Harbaugh said that the Ravens did their best to simulate the pressure of a game during practice sessions for former kicker Steve Hauschka, who was cut this week. Ultimately, it didn’t work out. “We put as much pressure on him in practice as we can,” he said. “Like we said in training camp, we’re not going to know until he steps up there. It was kind of 50-50 at this stage, and that’s not good enough right now, not for this team.” … Colts tight end Dallas Clark ranks second in the league with 64 receptions, and fifth with 768 receiving yards. “You look outside of Reggie Wayne, and, to me, Dallas Clark is probably the most important piece that they have on the offensive side of the ball,” middle linebacker Ray Lewis said. “He’s just one of those class guys. He’s always Mr. Reliable. Even in the championship game a couple of years ago, he made one of the most incredible catches I’ve seen, with perfect defense. You talk about Peyton, but Dallas Clark is probably one of his key weapons, as many great quarterbacks have always had that great tight end.”
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.