As crazy as it sounds after going two whole quarters without even picking up a first down in their uneven 25-15 win over Cleveland, the Ravens offense made progress on Sunday.
Their point total nearly matched their output over the previous 10 quarters they’d played on the road (28 points), and their performance over the game’s first 15 minutes might have been the most polished offensive quarter of the season — home or away. The Ravens began the game with 58 rushing yards on 11 carries, went 6-for-6 in the air for 70 yards, were 4-for-4 on third down, and possessed the ball for more than 12 minutes to build a 14-0 lead at the end of the first quarter.
A beautiful play-action pass to tight end Dennis Pitta was good for 27 yards and another first down with 8:38 remaining in the second quarter. It was all looking too easy against the Cleveland defense.
And then the Ravens offense disappeared until midway through the fourth quarter.
It’s at this point in the narrative when critics typically begin blasting offensive coordinator Cam Cameron for not feeding the ball to Pro Bowl running back Ray Rice, but that wasn’t the case on Sunday. After carrying 11 times for 58 yards in the first quarter, Rice continued to receive carries but couldn’t do much with them, gaining 40 yards on 14 additional rushing attempts the rest of the way.
Rice received his 25 carries and, yes, the Ravens won the game, but anyone who watched a horrendous 30 minutes of offensive play in the middle of Sunday’s win saw they couldn’t move the ball consistently through the air or on the ground, going seven straight drives without collecting a first down.
The criticism against Cameron not involving Rice enough had been fair leading into Sunday’s game, but to point to the play-calling alone for the offensive struggles against the Browns is too simplistic. As has been the case all along, the problems run deeper than just the maligned offensive coordinator, though that doesn’t free him from blame, either.
“I think all of us were probably frustrated a little bit there,” quarterback Joe Flacco said. “We weren’t able to move the ball, we weren’t converting on third down, and so, yeah, I think you have to deal with it. It’s how well can you deal with the frustration and go back out there and pick yourself up.
“I think we’re tough physically, but being tough mentally is just as important or more important. I think we’re good in both of those areas.”
Fortunately, the offense awoke just in time after a 14-point lead and showed the mental toughness Flacco described, but you have to wonder where that confidence went for two quarters. The Ravens talked over the bye week about the need to be on the same page offensively, but the offense wilted quickly after an encouraging start.
Is the confidence level too fragile after extensive offensive struggles on the road this season?
Did complacency set in after building a two-touchdown lead?
Was the offense simply wearing down after playing a more physical style early on?
The disconnect that’s existed in contrasting the offense’s excellent play at home against their poor work on the road came into full effect Sunday as the good and the bad appeared in tandem at Cleveland Browns Stadium.
”We started fast and we finished strong,” Harbaugh said. ”In the middle? It was a little bit iffy there. But we came together at the end to win the game.”
They were able to snap out of their offensive coma when Flacco threw a 21-yard strike over the middle to Anquan Boldin to give the Ravens a first down with less than nine minutes to play, the first time they had moved the chains since the Pitta completion in the second quarter.
It was the catalyst for the eventual 19-yard touchdown pass to Torrey Smith who caught a quick throw from Flacco and spun away from cornerback Joe Haden to give the Ravens the go-ahead score with 4:26 to play. The third-down pass was the first third-down conversion for the Ravens since beginning the game 4-for-4 as they finished a meager 5-for-14 on third downs against Cleveland.
Whether it becomes the turning point of the season for a Baltimore offense trying to find its way on the road remains to be seen, but it prevented what would have been a full meltdown after jumping out to a 14-0 lead against the 2-6 Browns.