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BALTIMORE — Unlike their virtually perfect execution from a week ago, the Baltimore Ravens collided with a few familiar road blocks. Despite another commanding outing by new quarterback Steve McNair marked by accurately regaining his old trademark timing with wide receiver Derrick Mason, the Ravens’ offense encountered some problems Thursday night against the Philadelphia Eagles.
Penalties, red-zone failure and clock management issues overshadowed a generally efficient attack that piled up yards. Three times, McNair spearheaded drives deep inside Eagles territory. Three times, the starting offense failed to score a touchdown even though Baltimore took a 20-10 victory before 70,255 at M&T Bank Stadium that was claimed by the strength of its reserves.
For a team that finished fourth from the bottom of the league in red-zone scoring efficiency last season, it was a disturbing trend. “We’ve got to finish now,” said McNair, who completed 14 of 18 passes in the first half for 148 yards and a 100.9 passer rating. “That’s the main ingredient. There’s no sense in going out there and taking six or seven minutes off the clock and not getting anything from it.
“We’ve got to finish in the red zone. That’s where it all counts. We work so hard to get there. We’ve just got to continue to dig down deep and get the ball in the end zone.”
McNair fumbled after being sacked at the Eagles’ 23-yard line when he was hit from behind by defensive end Jevon Kearse with the football recovered by Brian Dawkins.
The Ravens had to settle for a 30-yard Matt Stover field goal in the first quarter for their lone points in the first half following a stalled drive after three consecutive Mike Anderson runs totaled just eight yards.
“When we get in the red zone, we’ve got to score points,” Mason said. “That’s what our problem was last year. It wasn’t like we didn’t move the ball. We moved the ball effectively, but we’ve got to be able to put up points, not just three points.
“We know once we get inside there, teams are going to blitz and we’ve got to be able to pick up whatever the defense throws at us and make some plays down the field.”
One major bright spot was McNair resuming his connection with Mason, his former Tennessee Titans teammate for eight years. Mason caught a game-high seven passes for 72 yards. “It felt good, we’re getting into the flow of things,” McNair said. “We capitalized on some mistakes and when we made mistakes we came back and did a good job of getting yards back. So, I think we’re on the right track."
Plus, Baltimore couldn’t manage to get the field-goal unit on the field in time for Stover to kick a field goal as time expired in the first half.
The Ravens had inexplicably ran the ball into the line on third down instead of throwing the ball into the end zone or stopping the clock with a spike deep in Eagles territory. Without any timeouts, the Ravens failed to get off their field-goal attempt as time expired in the first half.
Twice, McNair expended timeouts to avert apparent confusion. Another time, Ravens coach Brian Billick’s instant replay challenge was denied when he contested whether McNair’s arm was moving forward on Kearse’s hit, which burned another timeout.
The Ravens were penalized six times for 63 yards, but Billick criticized the officials for not spotting the ball quickly enough for Stover’s try. The officials attempted to change the football in the final 12 seconds, which they’re not supposed to do.
“We ran it up, ready to go, they don’t get it spotted,” Billick said. “I guess it’s preseason for them, too. We can’t complain. We made our fair share of mistakes.”
The Ravens’ top play of the first half was a 36-yard gain by running back Musa Smith on a screen pass. Smith hurdled a defender and rumbled down the sidelines. Baltimore gained 192 net yards compared to the Eagles’ 123, but fell behind 10-3 by halftime.
“I was pleased with more than I was disappointed about,” offensive coordinator Jim Fassel said.
The second half was a much smoother operation for Baltimore.
First, linebacker Dennis Haley popped the football out of running back Ryan Moats’ grasp and into the hands of safety Jamaine Winborne. On the ensuing play, Smith dashed 43 yards off left tackle for a touchdown to tie the game at 10-10. It was his second impressive game in a row. He finished with 91 total yards.
Meanwhile, quarterback Kyle Boller rebounded strongly from an erratic showing a week ago against the New York Giants. Despite below-par pass blocking as he was sacked five times, Boller maintained his poise and completed 4 of 7 passes for 115 yards for a 141.4 passer rating. He delivered a well-thrown spiral to wide receiver Devard Darling for a 27-yard touchdown pass in the fourth quarter.
Boller also set up Stover’s second 30-yard field goal, connecting with Darling for 42 and 19 yards following Evan Oglesby intercepting Eagles reserve quarterback Koy Detmer.
Darling finished with five catches for 121 yards.
Defensively, it marked middle linebacker Ray Lewis’ first game in 10 months after he underwent season-ending surgery last December to repair a torn hamstring. Lewis appeared active and strong, although he overpursued a few times and failed to corral Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb (6 of 10, 97 yards) in the open field. McNabb dumped the football off to running back Correll Buckhalter for a 48-yard gain with Lewis trailing the play to set up his 1-yard touchdown pass to running back Reno Mahe two plays later.
“It felt great,” Lewis said. “One thing I’m concerned about is when they came out and had a hurry-up offense because that makes you move around a lot. It’s just good to be back on the football field.”
Lewis got a measure of revenge against the Eagles late in the first half when he clobbered the football out of Mahe’s hands after catching a short pass, forcing a fumble recovered by linebacker Terrell Suggs.
“You know what’s funny about that, Adalius Thomas came to me and said, ‘We need you to make a play,’” Lewis said. “As soon as he said that, I went out there and I made a play.
“I grabbed the back of his jersey and said, ‘Just swipe,’ so I got a pretty good swipe on the man. It felt so good because my crowd got energized again. My defense was rejuvenated.”
NOTE: Rookie defensive tackle Haloti Ngata, the team’s first-round draft pick, started and had a relatively quiet debut. He wasn’t credited with any tackles and was occasionally caught out of position and knocked down by Pro Bowl alternate offensive guard Shawn Andrews.
Aaron Wilson covers the Ravens for the Carroll County Times in Westminster, Maryland.