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OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Head coach John Harbaugh was prepared for questions about the Ravens’ ugly 23-20 loss to Buffalo and the utter disappearance of the running game.
For those mystified over a measly nine rushing attempts — two in the second half — the blame fell squarely on the coach’s shoulders as he addressed the media on Monday. The number of rushes was a record low in the 18-year history of the franchise in Baltimore.
“That’s my call all the way. I just felt like we weren’t running the ball well enough to win the game running the ball,” said Harbaugh, who added that he respected differing opinions about the lack of rushing attempts. “Looking back on it, I feel the same way. After watching the tape, I feel we did exactly the right thing to try to win that game. So, no second-guessing myself on that. That was my decision, and that’s the way we went with it.”
The fact that Harbaugh and the Ravens were so willing to throw in the towel on their running game in favor of throwing 31 straight passes from the latter portion of the second quarter until there was 4:52 remaining in the game speaks volumes about their lack of confidence. The Ravens are averaging just 2.6 yards per carry through four games, and Pro Bowl running back Ray Rice collected just 17 yards on five carries while backup Bernard Pierce gained seven yards on four attempts against the Bills.
The Ravens’ abandonment of the ground game came against a Buffalo defense that entered Sunday ranked 30th in the league against the run and had surrendered 182 rushing yards a week earlier against the Jets.
Baltimore’s inability to run the football has caused many to begin pointing fingers with the most scrutiny falling on second-year center Gino Gradkowski, who was given the task of replacing 15-year veteran Matt Birk this offseason. The 2012 fourth-round pick hasn’t been alone in his struggles as all five members of the line haven’t met expectations, but the responsibility of making the calls at the line of scrimmage has been an adjustment for everyone.
“It’s the difference between Gino and Matt with the calls, and we’re feeling that in there right now,” Harbaugh said. “Gino is a really smart guy, but Matt had been at it for a lot of years. So, that’s something that we’re working through. The rest of the offensive line — we’ve just got to get better. We’ve got to run block better.
“We’ve got to make decisions scheme-wise about what’s best for our guys to do, exactly what schemes those are. We’ve got to come off the ball in the run game a lot better than we’re doing, and we’ve got to be more physical with the inside part of our pass protection and give Joe [Flacco] more depth to the pocket and keep Joe more clean.”
The other individual receiving heat for the line’s poor performance has been new run-game coordinator Juan Castillo, who joined Harbaugh’s staff this offseason and unofficially moved ahead of offensive line coach Andy Moeller in the pecking order. Though he earned a sterling reputation for his work in Philadelphia for over a decade, the Ravens have struggled to pick up the adjustments made to the inside zone blocking schemes.
Many have opined that the Ravens’ personnel up front is better suited to run more of a man-power style, but Harbaugh downplayed the significance of any wrinkles added by Castillo to the team’s offensive line philosophy from previous seasons.
“It’s the same offense. We still run the same plays,” Harbaugh said. “We still have the same philosophy; there are always a few wrinkles. That’s why I brought Juan in, because I was excited about things I knew he was going to bring to the table and bring to our program. Those things are a part of what we’re doing. We’re not the same team we were two months ago, and we’re going to be a different team two months from now.”
No sugarcoating Dickson’s struggles
Tight end Ed Dickson’s struggles to catch the football continued Sunday as an contested pass from quarterback Joe Flacco clanked off the fourth-year player’s hands and into the arms of Bills safety Jim Leonhard in the second quarter.
Asked what the biggest difference was between Dickson now and the tight end who caught 54 passes for 528 yards and five touchdowns during the 2011 season, Harbaugh wasn’t in the mood to mince words.
“That’s a long time ago, so I’m hard-pressed to make that direct comparison,” Harbaugh said. “The stats kind of speak for themselves that you’re alluding to. He’s not the same player right now that he was then, obviously.”
Dickson has dropped six passes this year with the Ravens hoping he would pick up the slack for the injured Dennis Pitta. His 6-foot-4 frame and good speed suggested he has the tools to be a quality NFL tight end, but his time appears to be running out in a free-agent year for the 2010 third-round pick.
“Ed just needs to go catch the ball,” Harbaugh said. “He needs to run fast, get open and catch the football, put it away and get up field. That’s all he needs to do. And if he’s thinking about anything besides that, he’s doing himself a disservice. If he’s lacking confidence for some reason, that’s on him. [If] you’ve got that kind of talent and those kinds of gifts, go play ball.”