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BALTIMORE — It was a dizzying blur of chaotic confusion that seemed to rival the disoriented state experienced by quarterback Steve McNair when he was knocked out of the game with a concussion.
The final minutes of the Baltimore Ravensâ€™ 23-21 loss to the Carolina Panthers on Sunday were marked by a critical defensive breakdown that sealed a second consecutive loss.
In a rare and unusual occurrence for the second-ranked defense in the NFL that usually spearheads a points-starved football team, Baltimore (4-2) lost because of a blown defensive assignment that led to All-Pro wide receiver Steve Smithâ€™s game-clinching, 72-yard touchdown catch. For a change, it wasn’t the Baltimore offense’s fault.
â€œI imagine someone was supposed to stay with him,â€ said Ravens coach Brian Billick with heavy sarcasm after his teamâ€™s six-game winning streak at M&T Bank Stadium was halted. â€œMost defenses are designed that way.â€
Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme wanted to throw the football to Keyshawn Johnson, but promptly changed his mind when he saw cornerback Chris McAlister disrupt his route with a jam. Delhomme glanced downfield and saw Smith all by himself deep behind the secondary, waving his hand high in the air.
Cornerback Samari Rolle, who was beaten in the second quarter by Drew Carter for a 42-yard score and his third touchdown pass allowed in the past four games, was checking Smith. Rolle released him toward the deep middle where he thought former NFL Defensive Player of the Year safety Ed Reed would be. Reed wasn’t in the area, though.
â€œI thought I was going to throw to Keyshawn, but Chris McAlister was up pressed on Keyshawn,â€ Delhomme said. â€œI donâ€™t know if the safety had vision to me and my next thought — we had the lead — is hit my crosses, just get it out of my hand.
â€œWhen I look, all I see is 89 [Smith] running down the field with his hand up in the air. Just throw it. A lot of guys were giving me grief on the sidelines saying they were waiting for the ball to come down.â€
Although both Rolle and Reed took responsibility for the miscue afterward, it was Reed who reacted strongly toward Delhommeâ€™s primary target. That left the middle of the field extremely vulnerable, and Smith streaked into the end zone.
â€œWe knew they could make some big plays if we gave them a chance,â€ Reed said. â€œWe made some technical mistakes and they capitalized on them. They executed their game plan, and we couldn’t stop them."
Added Rolle: â€œThey had our number. We just didnâ€™t make the adjustment to the ball. I need to play better. We need to play better. We canâ€™t make any excuses.â€
Baltimore surrendered a season-high 414 yards of total offense as Delhomme passed for a career-high 365 yards on 24 of 39 passing. Smith caught eight passes for 189 yards, an average of 23.6 yards per reception.
Plus, the Panthers, who entered the game as the worst third-down offense in the NFL, converted 7 of 15 third downs. â€œWe thought we were good on defense,â€ linebacker Adalius Thomas said. â€œWe didnâ€™t do nothing today, period.
â€œTechnique. If youâ€™re supposed to do something, then do it. There wasnâ€™t any damn communication problem. Get on the same page and do your job.â€
McNair left the game with a medium concussion and a neck sprain late in the first quarter after completing 2 of 4 passes for 4 yards, one interception and a 16.7 passer rating. A myriad of tests were negative, according to team officials, and he should be able to return after the bye against the New Orleans Saints.
McNair’s exit to Union Memorial Hospital set the stage for an unlikely scenario: deposed former starter Kyle Boller trying leading the team to a victory.
Although Boller threw three touchdown passes, including two fortuitously tipped balls that landed in wide receiver Mark Claytonâ€™s hands for a pair of touchdowns, he was unable to engineer a comeback in the final moments following Smithâ€™s score.
Operating out the shotgun and going no-huddle, Boller tossed a 7-yard touchdown pass on a fade to tight end Todd Heap with 2:19 remaining after Smith’s touchdown to bring the Ravens within two points.
"I had an opportunity to go out there and do some things, but we came up short," said Boller, who completed 17 of 31 passes for 226 yards, one interception and a 97.0 passer rating "All I can do is go out there and give my best and try and move the ball."
However, Delhomme converted a key third down with 1:26 left on a pass to Carter. Baltimore burned its final timeout two plays later. Then, Delhomme kneeled down to end the game.
Delhomme went 24-for-39 with two fairly meaningless interceptions and the first one ending his franchise-record run of 150 passes without being picked off. However, he did enough to produce 23 points for the most scored against the Ravens this year and threw for the fifth-most yards against them ever.
â€œIt was a roller coaster," linebacker Bart Scott said. "We’ll win 90 percent of those."
Although the Ravens did move the ball fairly consistently with Boller under center, it wasnâ€™t enough to counteract a Carolina offense that kept generating points as kicker John Kasay tacked on field goals from 21, 31 and 21 yards.
The Ravens failed to score after either of Delhommeâ€™s interceptions.
â€œObviously when you lose two in a row and you donâ€™t get [expletive] on offense, excuse my language, until youâ€™ve got to muster some points, there’s not much you can say,â€ said wide receiver Derrick Mason, expressing his weekly frustrations about the NFLâ€™s 29th-ranked offense. â€œYou canâ€™t fault the defense. Theyâ€™ve been playing lights out for the last five games. Youâ€™re entitled to one slip-up here or there.â€
The Ravens left the stadium wondering about the health of their new franchise quarterback, the cohesiveness of their Pro Bowl-laden secondary and how they can regain a winning formula that produced an unprecedented 4-0 start to launch the season.
"The bye week couldn’t come at a better time, we aren’t flustered," outside linebacker Terrell Suggs said. "There is no need to panic. It’s not like we’re 2-4."
Now, Baltimore heads into the bye one game ahead of the Cincinnati Bengals for first place in the AFC North. The Ravens’ dark locker room mood doesn’t reflect their record.
â€œRight now, football isnâ€™t fun,â€ said Mason, who was held without a catch for the first time this season. â€œI shall forget about football for a week. To hell with football right now.â€
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times in Westminster, Maryland