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Slumping Offense? Close Losses? 2013 Ravens Looking Like 2009 Team

October 21, 2013

OWINGS MILLS -- Three straight close losses, two of them on the road. A sputtering running game and run defense. Dropped passes at precisely the wrong time. Special teams mistakes. Soul-searching during the bye week.

We're not talking about the present-day Ravens. The above scenario also took place in 2009.

In the PressBox first-quarter report card, Ravens Report said that if this year's so-far average, inconsistent team made the playoffs -- far from a guaranteed proposition at this point, given its 3-4 record -- it wouldn't last long once it got there.

In 2009, a stretch of games similar to what the team has just gone through actually happened, with the above forecast coming to fruition.

The Ravens started off with a 3-0 record, but fell to .500 at the bye week by losing at New England, suffering a rare home division loss to the Cincinnati Bengals and making a furious rally that went for naught during a 33-31 defeat at Minnesota.

That streak featured a fourth-down dropped pass by Mark Clayton during the loss to the Patriots, a porous run defense against Cincinnati that broke the team's 40-game streak without allowing a 100-yard rusher and a missed Steven Hauschka field goal with time running out that would have won the game against the Vikings.

Following the off week, the Ravens' offense sputtered, scoring 20 or fewer points during five of the next six games, which they split, 3-3. Particularly galling was a 17-15 home loss to Indianapolis, during which five field goals kept them close before a late interception killed off the Ravens' hopes.

A season-closing 3-1 spurt seemed to have the team in good stead, but a 9-7 record -- which barely got them in the playoffs as the sixth seed, because of a better conference record than Houston -- put the Ravens on the road, where a loss to the Colts during the Divisional Playoff round ended their season after their Wild Card Round win against the Patriots in Foxborough, Mass.

Fast-forward to the present, and a similar scenario seems to be unfolding.

Ravens 2013: Week 7 at Steelers No. 6 (Joe Flacco)
Photo Credit: Sabina Moran/PressBox

The Ravens, with a losing record after seven games for the first time since 2005 and the only time under John Harbaugh, have scored 20 or fewer points during four of their seven games and a league-low 13 first-quarter points all year.

Special-teams mistakes, such as failing to cover the sideline on Emmanuel Sanders' long kickoff return in Pittsburgh Oct. 20 and Jeromy Miles' jumping offsides on a surprise onside kick, have plagued a unit ranked third best in 2012 in Phil Gosselin's annual Dallas Morning News rankings.

A running game that used to be the envy of the league has been beset by nagging injuries to Ray Rice (shoulder, hip), Bernard Pierce (leg), and linemen Kelechi Osemele (back) and Marshal Yanda (shoulder). 

As a result of those maladies and a less-than-popular zone-blocking scheme, the Ravens have averaged less than 3 yards per carry, even though a simplified scheme allowed Rice to run the ball more effectively in Pittsburgh.

"We'll start getting the creases we need," Rice said last week. "Every year around this time, we try to re-identify ourselves. … We just have to execute. Week in and week out, the execution level has to be better."

Not only that, a run defense possibly hamstrung by defensive lineman Haloti Ngata's bad elbow -- one that had kept teams to less than 4 yards per rush for 16 straight years -- yielded 141 yards to the struggling Steelers.

In a parity-ridden league with a small margin for error, it has led to three straight losses by eight total points, just as the 2009 stretch featured three consecutive defeats by a cumulative 11 points.

The breaks that have typically seemed to go the Ravens' way aren't falling in their direction anymore -- witness an underthrown third-quarter long pass to Jacoby Jones that could have led to an electrifying, go-ahead touchdown -- and it could spell the difference between a sixth straight year of playoff football and a January on the couch for the first time since 2007.

"We moved the ball pretty well," quarterback Joe Flacco said after the Pittsburgh loss. "In the red zone, we got shut down a little bit. We weren't able to get the ball in the end zone.

"We just have to get better [during the bye week]. We just have to continue to look forward. It's a dogfight, [a football season] always is."

But with not many positive results on which to look back, the team's bye-week changes might not give it much to look forward to.

After all, that's how things worked out four years ago.