OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Riding high at 6-2 and owning a share of the AFC North lead with the Cincinnati Bengals, the Ravens hope to continue the offensive momentum built over their last six quarters of play that have produced 47 points when they travel to Seattle this Sunday.
The passing offense is trending upward after back-to-back 300-yard performances by quarterback Joe Flacco, but a byproduct has been the sputtering nature of the running game in recent weeks. In fairness, Flacco’s 98 passing attempts over the last two games have squashed opportunities on the ground, but the Ravens have struggled to run the football since a good first quarter of the 16-game schedule.
The Ravens rushed for 495 yards through their first four games — including a 170-yard performance against the Pittsburgh run defense in Week 1 — but that total has dipped to just 321 yards over their last four contests. Baltimore currently ranks 22nd in rushing offense and is 25th in yards per attempt at 3.9 yards per carry.
“There are some simple things we’ve got to get cleaned up,” offensive coordinator Cam Cameron. “It’s mostly technique stuff. It’s not the line. It’s not the backs. It’s not the tight ends. It’s just a combination of things we have to continue to get better at. We’re going to get some pretty challenging defenses against the run; this week is another one.”
The absence of left guard Ben Grubbs has certainly been a factor as former Pro Bowl center Andre Gurode filled in for five games despite having never played the position at the professional level. Grubbs’ absence and the late arrival of starting left tackle Bryant McKinnie — known more for his pass blocking — in the preseason have led to struggles gaining ground on the left side of the offensive line.
The run woes — and frustration — came to a head when the Ravens ran for a paltry 34 yards against the Jacksonville Jaguars and Rice received only eight carries.
“We don’t have to force the run game,” Rice said. “One thing about it now, I told Cam, I told the guys, I am not going to be a guy that begs for the ball. I want it to be a situation where he is calling the game, and he is comfortable. Any time you try to force any situation, bad things happen. We are where we are. The run game, I think, is still effective. Guys have to go into the game respecting it.”
The Baltimore rushing attack has struggled more noticeably against the 4-3 defense, with its two lowest rushing totals this season coming against Jacksonville and Tennessee (45). The Ravens’ only other opportunity against a 4-3 attack came against the St. Louis Rams, who own the league’s worst run defense. In their 37-7 Week 3 win, the Ravens were able to run for 168 yards, but have found no other success against four-man fronts.
A 4-3 defense typically includes more athletic defensive linemen as opposed to a traditional 3-4 scheme with bulkier defensive linemen. The Ravens will face Seattle’s 4-3 defense a week after facing Pittsburgh’s traditional 3-4 alignment.
“You have to attack them,” Rice said. “The thing is with the 4-3 fronts, obviously it’s a different structure of defense. You can’t run the same kind of runs against a 3-4 that you are going to run against a 4-3. A lot of the stuff, blocking assignments are probably a little bit more downhill rather than east and west. A lot of the stretch and cut things still apply, [but] you can’t go into the game plan thinking that you are going to run the same plays you ran against the Steelers – or any 3-4 team – that you are going to come in and run the same against a 4-3. It’s a totally different defense.”
Though ranked 16th in total defense, the Seahawks have shown the ability to play well against the run. Ranked 13th in ground defense, Seattle is allowing only 3.4 yards per attempt, which ranks third in the NFL. With the Seahawks owning the 29th-ranked offense in the NFL, opposing teams have decided not to take chances and have attempted 257 rushes in eight games, third-most in the league. Seahawks middle linebacker David Hawthorne leads the team with 54 tackles while safety Earl Thomas is right behind him with 53.
Playing at CenturyLink Field in Seattle, labeled the “loudest stadium” in the league by Cameron, the Ravens hope to control the tempo of the game via the ground attack and to avoid the need to go to the no-huddle attack as they did in Pittsburgh — mostly out of necessity. And with a 40 percent chance of rain and a predicted high of 49 degrees in Seattle on Sunday afternoon, unleashing Rice and backup Ricky Williams would be the best weapon to combat any inclement weather.
“We’ve got good backs,” Cameron said. “Especially as the weather turns and we’re heading down the stretch here, we have to pick up our running game a little bit.”