Nearly every notable season in the brief history of the Baltimore Ravens has included a critical point that determined which path the team would travel.
Of course, the Super Bowl winner of 2000 endured a five-game touchdown drought before head coach Brian Billick reinvented his coaching philosophy and turned to the “Dark Side” of winning ugly with a record-setting defense and a power running game.
The 2006 Ravens posted the best regular season record in franchise history (13-3) but experienced a two-game losing streak and fired offensive coordinator Jim Fassel during the bye week before Billick’s play calling rejuvenated a team that would go on to win nine of its last 10 regular season games.
And only a year ago, Baltimore’s record stood at 2-3 after being lambasted by Indianapolis, 31-3, in Week 6. Instead of folding with a three-game losing streak, the Ravens earned a big victory in Miami to spark a four-game winning streak and nine of 11 victories to close out the regular season before advancing to the conference championship game.
Simply put, adversity is a part of the game—even for the greatest teams.
And it’s exactly what the Ravens face after losing two straight and traveling to Minneapolis to face Brett Favre and the undefeated Minnesota Vikings on Sunday.
After an exhilarating 3-0 start, the offense now grapples with its identity, and the defense—after a decade of dominance with a variety of characters—looks very mortal after losing back-to-back games to New England and Cincinnati.
While a loss to the Vikings would not end the Ravens’ season by any stretch, it might remind doubters of the 2007 season when a 4-2 squad lost in Buffalo and then went to Pittsburgh on the first Monday night in November and…well…we don’t need to go there.
A season can fall apart all-too-quickly.
In times like these, the Ravens have always counted on the defense to provide the lift, but it may not happen this season. While still a good defense (yes, 10th in the league isn’t THAT bad, Ravens fans), the unit lacks the consistent pass rush to disguise an undersized and less-talented secondary. The jury’s still out on defensive coordinator Greg Mattison, but it’s clear he isn’t Rex Ryan, nor should anyone have fairly expected that.
In other words, it’s finally time for the offense to provide a boost to the defense after years of the exact opposite occurring.
The talent is there. Joe Flacco’s rapid development is tangible, Derrick Mason and Todd Heap are reliable targets, and the roster includes three quality running backs with diverse skill sets. The unit will never be confused with the 2007 Patriots or the Greatest Show on Turf, but it is capable of beating anyone with the proper game plan.
And that brings us to coaching. Cam Cameron is one of the brilliant offensive minds in the game—last year’s offensive production with a rookie quarterback a perfect example. Unlike Mattison, he has the vast NFL coaching experience from which to draw.
There’s no reason why this offense cannot be successful, so why the recent struggles?
It all starts with ego and a obsession with the passing game. The Ravens seem obsessed with proving they are no longer a running team, and it’s hard to understand why.
While the defense struggles to recapture its dominant past, Cameron and the offense must remember what made them so successful a year ago.
Running the football and controlling the tempo of the game.
The Ravens led the NFL in rushing attempts last season with a three-headed attack that left defensive coordinators struggling to find solutions and defenses wilting in the second half.
But now, this Baltimore offense continues to run from who it really is.
“Football has changed for the better,” Cameron said last week after running just 17 times against New England and before calling only 18 run plays against the Bengals on Sunday.
“Just look at last year’s Super Bowl. People have got to move beyond the notion that running the football leads to the championships. It doesn’t. There are times we all want to run the football, but you don’t have to run the football to win as much as people think.”
So how exactly did the Ravens make it to the AFC Championship last season?
Cameron’s statement befuddled me last week and continues to leave the impression that the Ravens are running away from themselves on the offensive side of the ball.
Think of Robin Hood trading in his bow and arrow for a slingshot and stone before heading into battle.
It just doesn’t make any sense.
Sure, the Ravens needed more balance offensively this season, but an improved passing game should not supplant your bread and butter. It should only augment your biggest strength.
For Le’Ron McClain to have only 25 touches in five games after rushing for nearly 1,000 yards last season is inexcusable. Starting fullback or not, a man of his size can absolutely punish and wear down a defense, as we continuously witnessed last season.
And for Willis McGahee—healthy, motivated, and gaining over five yards per attempt—to receive only one carry against the Bengals is a waste of his talents.
Ray Rice has clearly been one of the brightest spots of the season, averaging an astonishing 5.8 yards per carry. He is the clear starter, and no one is suggesting he receive fewer carries, but McGahee and McClain and their different styles need to be bigger factors in the offense.
When asked about their lack of carries, Harbaugh said, “We’ve got three guys. It’s hard to get them all in there at the same time.”
A true statement, but again, the Ravens made it work last year, didn’t they?
It was unconventional and lacked the sparkle of throwing the ball all over the field, but it won many football games.
The best tonic for a struggling offense and a vulnerable defense is a strong running game that controls the tempo—and the clock.
The Ravens led the NFL in time of possession last season, holding more than a six-minute advantage per game (33:22). In addition to wearing down the opposing defense, it helped keep their own defense off the field, another factor leading to the Ravens ranking No. 2 in total defense in 2008.
Through five games this season, the Ravens rank 15th in time of possession, holding the ball for 30:06 per game, a number skewed further by their 20-minute advantage over Kansas City in Week 1.
Of course, time of possession is an intermediate stat, a reflection of doing something else well—like running the football. As a result, it keeps your defense fresh for the final drive of the game when a stop is badly needed, as it was against the Bengals on Sunday.
Will it solve all of the defense’s problems? Of course not, but it certainly wouldn’t hurt and might even hide some of its deficiencies.
Harbaugh and Cameron won’t come out publicly and say the Ravens need to run the ball more.
But the balance of the season rests on this offense finding its true identity, not just for its own sake but to help a defense that carried the load for far too many years.
The answer is staring them in the face.
Will they accept it or keep running from who they are?