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Ravens' Run Game Could Be Rescued Within The Division

October 14, 2013

OWINGS MILLS -- It may sound hyperbolic, but it was a classic confrontation of epic proportions.

Epic is perhaps the best way to describe the waistline of former Ravens defensive coordinator Rex Ryan at the time of his New York Jets' 2010 season -- and new stadium-opening game against his former team from Charm City.

Ryan's Jets were riding a tidal wave of momentum, what with appearing on "Hard Knocks" and having Super Bowl aspirations after appearing in the AFC title game the previous year. The tsunami grew even bigger when Ryan's defense sacked Joe Flacco and recovered a fumble on the first play of the game.

The Ravens offense, as it does with alarming regularity at times, struggled mightily that night, gaining 49 rushing yards with the backs getting repeatedly hit before reaching the line of scrimmage. But despite all that, Baltimore won the game, 10-9.

It hasn't won a game like that since.

According to an survey, that particular game not only featured the most recent instance of a Ravens team winning with less than 60 rushing yards, but it was the last time Baltimore's running backs got hit in the backfield as much as they did Oct 13 during a rare home loss to the Green Bay Packers, 19-17.

Ravens 2013: Week 6 vs. Packers (Bernard Pierce)
Photo Credit: Sabina Moran/PressBox

Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce were first contacted on nine of 21 designed runs against the Packers, yet another instance of both tentative running and substandard blocking by an offensive line that has woefully underperformed this season. As a result, the Ravens are 3-3 after six games for the first time in four years.

Baltimore has nine straight losses during games when it has rushed for less than 60 yards, and now might be a good time to get back on the ground-game bandwagon, because the team's next three games are against foes from the AFC North division, a four-team fraternity that usually seems to thrive on consistent, effective running attacks.

That theory is being tested at the moment, because the first-place Cincinnati Bengals (4-2) ranked 19th in rushing going into Week Six, the highest of the four North teams.

But even with 99 rushing yards per game and 3.6 yards per carry, the Bengals were outperforming the Ravens, who had a 77-yard average and a 2.8 per-carry rate before mustering 47 yards and 2.1 per rush against Green Bay. After that game, the average dropped to 2.7, tied with Jacksonville for the NFL's worst.

First-down predictability has become a talking point, and the tone was set during the first quarter against the Packers, when the Ravens ran the ball four times on five first-down plays, gaining no yards.

"I always feel like we can mix it up a little bit more on first and second down just to get everybody going," quarterback Joe Flacco said. "… We're just not getting the yardage and the creases that we need right now in that part, and we're kind of unsuccessful at a lot of other things we do just because of that."

Even though this probably wasn't Flacco's intention, that statement seems to point the finger directly at the offensive line, which the Ravens tried to upgrade by trading two lower-round draft picks for Jacksonville left tackle Eugene Monroe, who got his first start in purple against Green Bay.

"We've got to all be on the same page and execute," Monroe said. "Our run game will go; we have everyone that will give us the ability to run it well. We've just got to show up on game day and execute."

The next opportunity to do that will be the first of the Ravens' three straight intradivisional tests, Oct. 20 at Pittsburgh (4:25 p.m.; WJZ-TV, WIYY-FM). After the Ravens' bye week, they will travel to Cleveland before returning home to face Cincinnati.

Even though the Steelers (1-4) are in last place in the division and have lost their last three home games to Baltimore, the Ravens' ground game will need to fare better than it has.

"We just have to execute," Rice said after the Green Bay loss. "We've got to execute at a high level. We don't ever plan on going out there and [not performing well]. It's a problem that we have to get fixed, and we've got [to go to] Pittsburgh next week."

If it's any consolation to Ravens fans, their favorite team has run the ball well within the division.

During the team's only AFC North game so far, it ran 36 times for 99 yards during a 14-6 home win against Cleveland, the team with which it is tied for second place. The Ravens showed near-perfect balance that day, passing it 35 times.

Not only that, during the Ravens' 2012 championship season, they averaged 120.6 yards per game during the six division contests, averaging 29.5 rushes per game. As a result, Baltimore finished division play with a 4-2 record.

For its part, Pittsburgh was ranked next-to-last in rushing -- four spots below the Ravens -- and managed 73 ground yards during their Oct. 13 win against the Jets. But the Steelers persisted, running the ball 26 times and keeping it for more than 35 minutes.

When a team is underperforming on offense the way the Ravens are, it can divide a locker room and even a coaching staff. Stories still abound concerning the verbal clashes that took place during the Ravens' 2000 season, which ended with a Super Bowl XXXV win.

But that kind of divide, at least outwardly, doesn't seem to exist with this year's team.

"We have one of the best running back tandems in the NFL," linebacker Terrell Suggs said. "We usually have good success when we use them. We saw that [against Miami Oct. 6].

"I think there are things to work at as an offense, as a defense, and [on] special teams. ... We have a tremendous amount of work to do."

And it starts in Pittsburgh, a game that is usually a classic confrontation of epic proportions.