Over 71,000 fans were amazed with the new Ferrari in the neighborhood on Sunday, and nobody could blame them.
Joe Flacco was throwing passes all over the field, and the Ravens’ traditional run-first offense that so many expect—and often complain about—had suddenly transformed into a 171-yard aerial assault in one half of football. Undoubtedly, it was exciting to watch the second-year quarterback show off the laser arm like Brady or Manning does every Sunday.
But then it happened. An ill-advised pass by the second-year quarterback was intercepted by linebacker Derrick Johnson and returned all the way to the Ravens’ 6, setting up the go-ahead touchdown early in the third quarter.
Suddenly, the exciting vibes from that shiny new sports car had vanished, and the Ravens trailed the inferior (or thought to be, anyway) Kansas City Chiefs.
What the heck was going on, and how would Cam Cameron, Flacco, and the offense respond? Would we see panic or the continuation of the throw-first offense used in the first half?
The answer was simple. It was time to call upon that old friend that led them to an improbable 11-5 season a year ago. It lacked the bells and whistles of the new passing attack, but its reliable four-wheel drive could pull the Ravens out of a very muddy situation.
Of course, that friend was the running game, forgotten in the first half but badly needed to stabilize a game suddenly spiraling out of control for the Ravens.
Following Dwayne Bowe’s two-yard touchdown reception that put the Chiefs up 14-10, the Ravens’ offense took the ball and suddenly reverted back into the three-headed monster.
It was clear on the first play of the drive when Le’Ron McClain pounded the ball straight ahead for a gain of eight yards.
That looked familiar.
Then, after two pedestrian carries by Ray Rice for six more yards and a 10-yard completion to Todd Heap, it was time for Willis McGahee to attack, breaking off runs of 16 and 9 yards.
Bruising shots to the body.
It’s not always pretty, as McClain and McGahee only gained six yards on the next two plays, but two plays later, Flacco found Heap over the middle for a nine-yard touchdown.
Though not the decisive blow, the Ravens were going to be okay after that. And the reason why is they got back to what they do best—running the football.
It would be a stretch to criticize an offense that produced 215 total yards in the first half, but two statistics just didn’t look right at halftime—10 points and 44 rushing yards.
An offense that led the NFL in rushing attempts a season ago had turned its back on its biggest strength. But when the Ravens desperately needed it, that old identity resurfaced. Everything else—including the passing game—fell into place after that.
Make no mistake, the Ravens absolutely need more production out of their passing game if they hope to reach the Super Bowl; however, 25 passing attempts and only 13 running plays in a half probably isn’t the Ravens’ best formula for success every week.
The second half was a different story as the Baltimore offense ran the ball 28 times for a whopping 154 yards. And, oh yeah, Flacco still managed to throw 18 more times for another 132 yards and two more touchdown passes.
John Harbaugh admitted the team planned to come out throwing against a vulnerable Kansas City secondary—and it’s hard to argue with the results in terms of yardage—but the offense got greedy after its early success.
Perhaps it took a disastrous interception to remind the Ravens that having a good passing game does not mean you should use it exclusively. Regardless of how much the passing game has improved from last season, the combination of running the football and playing great defense—what the Ravens do best—is still the surest way to win consistently in the NFL.
“This is a new year, a new offense, a new mentality, everything starts over,” Mark Clayton said after Sunday’s game. “And we are kind of reformed or remaking ourselves and to be able to throw the ball down the field, it’s fun, one, and it puts points on the board, two. The last time I checked, the team with the most points wins. Our goal is to score every time.”
The excitement from both players and fans is completely understandable, but last time I checked, the 2008 formula worked pretty well too. The Ravens rediscovered it when they needed it in the second half and went on to produce 24 points and 286 yards of offense—more than they accumulated in either category in the first half.
It may lack the excitement of an all-out air assault, but a happy balance of old and new will not only put points on the board, but it will wear down opponents in the process.
“We were getting five or six yards at a time, and then those five- or six-yard runs started turning into 15-yard runs and 10-yard runs and 20-yard runs,” Rice said. “That’s what good running teams do. On top of all the good passing today, you can look at our running game and say we did pretty good.”
Pretty good, indeed.
Just don’t forget about it.