BALTIMORE - Dick LeBeau told us there would be days like this. Football teams rarely perfect new defenses on the fly. They tend to hit the ground stumbling.
Such was the case Sunday at Memorial Stadium, when Grim Reality crushed Undue Optimism in the erstwhile Battle of Ohio. The Baltimore Ravens (nee Cleveland Browns) beat the Cincinnati Bengals (nee Mighty Lucky Ducks), 23-10, exploiting the growing pains of LeBeau's defense with a steamroller second half.
Trailing at intermission, 10-3, the Ravens returned to the field with a no-huddle offense which the Bengals countered with an ostensibly no-clue defense. LeBeau's zone blitz scheme is still at an early stage of its learning curve, and it may be some time before its success approximates a straight line.
''LeBeau said it's going to be a rocky road,'' Bengals linebacker James Francis said. ''We're going to have our ups. We're going to have our downs. We didn't expect to go 16-0. But it's getting better as a whole. It's just that in the heat of the battle, sometimes you lose it.''
There is bound to be some confusion when a football team adopts a new defense, but the Bengals were closer to bewilderment in the heat of Sunday's battle. The Ravens scored on their first four possessions of the second half, producing two field goals, touchdown drives of 67 and 96 yards, and a useful blueprint for Bengal opponents.
''We practiced against (the no-huddle) and I thought we were ready to play against it,'' LeBeau said. ''I thought - being a fairly new team coming together with a new defensive scheme - that we'd see it. I thought they (Ravens) would play the whole game in it. But we really didn't handle it very well. We let the no-huddle kind of rattle us a little.''
LeBeau's defense looked strikingly similar Sunday to those that tried to cope with the Bengals' Attack Offense in 1988, back when the no-huddle was still a novelty. He had trouble: A) keeping players fresh because of the pace of play; and B) keeping the appropriate lineup on the field because of the difficulty of substitutions.
Once, the Bengals were caught with 12 men on the field. (Aside to Corey Sawyer: Next time, sprint for the sideline). Worse, they were caught repeatedly with misunderstood assignments.
''They (Ravens) were coming up to the line and we were trying to get the calls and some of the guys didn't know what the call was,'' said Bengals cornerback Ashley Ambrose. ''It's loud out there and it's tough. And if one guy blows an assignment, it's wide open.''
No rest for weary
Fatigue was another factor. A week after crediting superior conditioning for their startling comeback against Arizona, the Bengals wobbled their way through Sunday's fourth quarter. When they slowed the pace of Baltimore's play, it was sometimes through suspicious injuries.
''That no-huddle makes a lot of guys go down and play hurt so somebody can get a rest,'' said Ravens tackle Orlando Brown, presumably in reference to the temporary incapacity of Kimo Von Oelhoffen and John Copeland. ''Once I saw that, I talked to the line and I said, 'Let's up the tempo some more. Let's turn it up because they're laying down.'''
If gamesmanship became the Bengals' game plan, it succeeded only in delaying the inevitable. The main reason this game was marginally suspenseful was because of Baltimore's three first-half turnovers. Even so, the Ravens accumulated 412 yards of total offense and required only one third-down conversion on their decisive 96-yard yard drive.
''I hate the way we're playing right now,'' Ambrose said. ''But we are learning. We're going to have to get used to this defense fairly quick. If we're going to be a championship team, we're going to have to really know what we have to do. It's going to take time before everyone knows it like the back of their hand. It may take a few weeks. Like Coach LeBeau said, it may take years.''
Reality is not always reassuring.