OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The conclusions have been predictable after the Ravens ran the ball a team-record 55 times in Sunday’s 24-10 win over the Cleveland Browns.
Many believe Baltimore has finally established an offensive identity of running the ball first after a career-high 204 yards from running back Ray Rice. With the inconsistency displayed by quarterback Joe Flacco and the passing attack through the first 12 games of the season, the proclamation is understandable in some ways.
But coach John Harbaugh isn’t buying it, nor should he in today’s NFL.
“It is a passing league,” Harbaugh said in his Monday post-game press conference. “If you look at the rules the way they’re built and the way yards are piled up in the passing offenses compared to the running offense and the way you score points, I think you have to agree with that. Just look around the league. Teams that are scoring the most points are the teams that are throwing the ball the most.”
Undoubtedly, the Ravens have shown a stronger commitment to running the football with 122 rushing attempts in their last three games — two of those coming against formidable run defenses in Cincinnati and San Francisco. Facing the 29th-ranked run defense in the NFL entering Sunday certainly crossed offensive coordinator Cam Cameron’s mind in developing a game plan, but matchups and game circumstances won’t always dictate you can simply run the ball and make Flacco and the passing attack a complementary part of the offense.
The highest-scoring offenses in the NFL are pass-happy units and the Ravens will inevitably run into defenses capable of shutting down the run — perhaps a certain team in western Pennsylvania in January — but the success obtained on the ground in recent weeks is encouraging for an offensive attack looking for balance. Its possible impact on the play-action pass is also worth monitoring in the coming weeks.
As the elements turn for the worst in December and teams the Ravens might encounter in January provide an even greater level of competition, wins are all that matter, no matter how they look offensively.
“The idea is to be the winningest offense, defense, and special teams,” Harbaugh said. “That’s why we’re really not willing to sit here and say that we’re a run-first outfit. I think we’re a win-first outfit. We believe in running the football, absolutely. We think you have to run the ball and stop the run to be the kind of physical football team that we want to be. But you have to be able to pass the ball and stop the pass, too.
“In any given game, you just can’t predict exactly what you’re going to need to do for sure. You can look at a defense and say, ‘OK, we’re going to attack them this way,’ but a defense is capable of taking something away from you and you’ve got to be able to go on to the next thing.”
An interesting thought process was broached by Rice last week in talking about the long-term benefits of executing so many run plays in recent weeks for an offensive line that’s struggled to gain yardage on the ground at times this season. With the limited number of padded practices allowed by the new collective bargaining agreement, Rice believes the running game has suffered without the same amount of contact in workouts.
The return of left guard Ben Grubbs also provides a positive correlation with the Ravens’ ability to have more success with the ground attack, a positive sign as the team enters the final quarter of the season with postseason aspirations sharply in focus.
“The game reps are the best reps as far as improving,” Harbaugh said. “That’s where you can really study the tape and you can build on that stuff. But, we try to practice as close as we can to game reality without — you can’t really bang too much this time of the year. But, it helps.”
Ultimately, the idea of establishing an offensive “identity” is far more important to fans and media than the coaching staff and players when they’re talking in their meeting rooms. The objective is to give yourself the best opportunity to win any particular football game with a different opponent that has varying strengths and weaknesses from week to week. What works against team A won’t necessarily jive against team B, and vice versa.
It’s simple logic that’s often lost in the emotional ups and downs of a 16-game regular season.
Imposing their will on the opposition is important and the Ravens want to be able to play with a physical nature as much as possible — particularly late in the season — but the winning combination varies every week.
Same old story for Lewis
After missing his third straight game with a turf toe injury, linebacker Ray Lewis has now missed his longest stretch of contests since 2005 when he missed 10 games with a torn hamstring.
Harbaugh downplayed the notion of simply resting Lewis against inferior opponents as many have suggested, saying the Ravens always want to have their full assortment of players against any foe. However, the question of Lewis returning against the winless Indianapolis Colts on Sunday predictably remains up in the air.
“Is he going to be ready to do that? We don’t know,” Harbaugh said. “He says he’s going to be ready to do it. He’s got some orthotics that may give him a chance to be able to do that, so we’ll just have to see how that goes this week. We’ve been trying the last couple weeks; we have probably been somewhat cautions. We want to make sure that he doesn’t re-injure it, so we’ll just have to see how it goes again this week.”
Starting in Lewis’ place on Sunday was third-year linebacker Dannell Ellerbe, who tied for the team lead with seven tackles against the Browns.
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