- The Washington Times - Friday, October 26, 2001

OWINGS MILLS, Md. The Baltimore Ravens are encountering major problems across the board.

Their star quarterback is getting mauled, their offense is constantly turning the ball over, their running game is inconsistent and their fearsome, record-setting defense has surrendered 55 points in the past two games. No wonder the Ravens are 3-3.

Making matters worse, quarterback Elvis Grbac may miss Sunday's key AFC Central home game against the Jacksonville Jaguars (2-3) because of a rib injury he suffered on a third-quarter sack in Sunday's 24-14 loss at Cleveland.

Randall Cunningham, the Ravens' 38-year-old backup quarterback, took all the repetitions with the first team in practice Wednesday and now appears to be Sunday's starter.

Coach Brian Billick says turnovers are his team's biggest downfall. Last season the Ravens led the NFL with a plus-23 turnover ratio. After six games this season, they're minus-seven (28th out of 31 NFL teams) and have lost more fumbles (eight) than all of last season.

Convincing losses to the Cincinnati Bengals and Browns obviously have humbled the confident defending champions. The Ravens are just one loss away from matching last season's loss total with 10 games left. After six games last season, the Ravens were 5-1.

"I don't look at it as a slap in the face losing to Cincinnati or Cleveland," tight end Shannon Sharpe said. "If you don't take care of the football in this league, 90 percent of the time you lose the game. If we take care of the football, we can beat any team in this league. We're not doing a very good job of defending our title right now."

That includes protecting Grbac. In the past two losses, Grbac was knocked out of each game after taking a ferocious hit.

The Ravens signed Grbac in the offseason to a lucrative five-year, $30 million deal. So far, the Ravens are not getting a return on their investment. Grbac has thrown four interceptions in his last 30 attempts and has eight interceptions in the past five games. In the Ravens' three losses, Grbac has thrown seven interceptions and lost a fumble in each.

"Maybe we think we are a little better offensively than we actually are," Sharpe said.

The offensive line has allowed eight sacks in two games. Instability on the right side is a problem. Sammy Williams, an inexperienced third-year man, and veteran Erik Williams are platooning at tackle. Bennie Anderson and Kipp Vickers are rotating in and out at right guard. But on the left side, the Ravens are fine with perennial Pro Bowl choice Jonathan Ogden at tackle and Edwin Mulitalo at guard.

Disaster struck the offense when star running back Jamal Lewis blew out his left knee in training camp and was lost for the season. Last year as a rookie, Lewis combined for 2,038 yards in the regular season and postseason.

Even though the Ravens have the league's 11th-rated rushing attack, the team will be hard-pressed to duplicate what Lewis accounted for last season. Terry Allen, the Ravens' 33-year-old running back, is averaging 3.6 yards per carry compared to Lewis' 4.4 in 2000.

Last season, the defense established NFL records for the fewest points (165) and fewest rushing yards allowed (970) during a 16-game schedule. Although the Ravens have the league's top-rated defense, they are unlikely to match last season's numbers. In the past two weeks, teams have mounted long scoring drives.

Opponents are spreading their offenses with four- and sometimes five-wide receiver sets, neutralizing Pro Bowl middle linebacker Ray Lewis the Ravens' leading tackler by freezing him in coverage. The defensive line isn't applying enough pressure on opposing quarterbacks and the secondary is getting picked apart.

"We're making more mistakes this year that can be easily corrected," cornerback Duane Starks said. "Last year we made mistakes as well, but teams didn't capitalize on it."

Note Injured right tackle Leon Searcy suffered a setback while rehabilitating from a torn triceps and may have to undergo another operation. Searcy, whom the Ravens acquired as a free agent in the offseason from the Jaguars, injured himself during the first day of training camp and has not played this season.

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