Jim Fassel did not face an easy task when he signed on in the offseason to be the Baltimore Ravens' offensive coordinator. Not only did he have to find a way to improve an offense that ranked second to last in the NFL in total yardage a year ago, but he also had to help the unit develop confidence and swagger.
"It takes a little while to build," Fassel said. "It doesn't happen overnight, but I didn't think we'd struggle this badly now."
Fassel and the Ravens have had two weeks to mull over their offensive struggles, which have led to their 0-2 start. Baltimore, which will host the New York Jets on Sunday, has scored just two touchdowns, and its offense ranks in the bottom third of the league in virtually every category, including last in rushing (45.5 yards per game).
During the team's offseason media clinic, Coach Brian Billick and Fassel explained how the Ravens would become a more efficient offensive team. Billick talked about how they wanted to be more explosive, generating one big pass play (25 yards or longer) every 10 throws. Fassel stressed three things above all else: improving the quarterback's completion percentage, protecting the quarterback and protecting the football.
So far, the only thing that has improved is completion percentage. Kyle Boller completed 65.2 percent of his passes before suffering a hyperextended big toe during the third quarter of the season opener, and Anthony Wright is completing 62 percent of his passes (44 for 71).
The Ravens have had two pass plays of 25 yards or longer -- one of which was an end-of-the-half catch and lateral -- out of 95 throws. Boller and Wright have been sacked a combined nine times, and the offense has turned over the ball six times.
"I just keep trying a different key in that lock to see what can get us unlocked and going," Fassel said. "From there, then it's a self-fulfilling thing. With success, we feel good, we get rolling. I think the biggest thing is we can't stop ourselves with missed assignments, missed blocks, missed this, missed that. You can't be in third-and-long situations. There are no good plays" in third and long.
Baltimore has had 34 third-down chances this season, and 15 of them were third and 10 or longer. That's one reason why the Ravens are converting just 35.3 percent of their third down plays, which ties them for 21st in the NFL.
It also doesn't help that Baltimore is averaging just 3.93 yards on first down (29th in the NFL, well under the league average of 5.04 yards). The Ravens have had difficulty both rushing and passing, and they've failed to gain yardage on 24 of 57 first-down plays.
"When you look at it, we definitely didn't help ourselves," guard Edwin Mulitalo said. "From that aspect, those things can be turned around. That's what we hope to do these next games; try not to put ourselves in a hole."
"Mental things are always something that can be fixed," tight end Daniel Wilcox said. "The problem is when you just don't have the manpower to basically fight back and match up with the guys you're playing against. We think we've got that, hands down."
Veteran wide receiver Derrick Mason has shown why the Ravens were so eager to sign him, with a team-high 16 catches for 159 yards and one touchdown. Baltimore has good depth at tight end, with Pro Bowler Todd Heap, Wilcox and Darnell Dinkins (a combined 22 catches for 216 yards). And of course, there is running back Jamal Lewis.
Lewis, who rushed for over 3,000 yards in the past two seasons combined, has just 57 yards on 26 carries. The Ravens have run nearly three times as many pass plays (104) as running plays (34), but say they plan on reverting to their physical, run-based attack this week.
"It seems like the last couple of weeks, we've tried to open the offense and balance it out and do some different things," Lewis said. "That's not my thing. I like to run the football. I like to set the tempo on this offense and get it going. Eventually, now we're getting back to it."
Fassel is still buoyant and confident, and he uses the phrase "keep sawing wood" to describe how the team has focused on the basics during the bye week. He said that he hasn't changed his approach with the players; he still gets on them, though he's tried to challenge them in a positive way.
"We're not going to panic here," Fassel said. "You keep trying, you just have to keep adjusting little things until we can get 'em going. There's no magic fix. I try little different things, but it still comes down to we have to go out and play and execute."
Ravens Notes: The Jets' Brooks Bollinger will make his first start as an NFL quarterback in place of the injured Chad Pennington, but the main focus for the Ravens' defense is stopping running back Curtis Martin, who led the NFL in rushing with 1,697 yards last season. In the Ravens' 20-17 overtime win over the Jets last year, Martin ran for 119 yards and scored two touchdowns.
"You can actually go play quarterback for them this week, and go hand the ball off to Curtis Martin," said linebacker Ray Lewis, when asked how Pennington's absence will affect his approach to the game. "Never take the attention away from Curtis Martin. This is what this offense is built on." . . .
The Ravens are the healthiest they've been in some time; only Boller is out.