OWINGS MILLS, Md. — No one could have predicted Sunday’s offensive debacle that resulted in the Ravens losing control of their path to the playoffs, but the 25-13 loss continued a disturbing trend in the final month of the season.
Despite winning two of three December games on the way to a 9-6 record, Baltimore has needed to overcome alarmingly slow starts against Miami, Jacksonville, and, finally, Houston. Of course, those offensive woes continued throughout the day against the Texans as the Ravens managed only 64 total yards through the first three quarters, bringing the concern to the forefront.
In 21 first-quarter plays against the Dolphins, Jaguars, and Texans, the Ravens compiled just 54 yards, one first down, and seven points, which came on a punt block returned for a touchdown against Jacksonville. For an offense that entered Week 16 ranked 10th in total yards and eighth in points per game, the poor starts are difficult to explain, but Sunday illustrated how a disturbing trend will ultimately catch up with you before too long.
Head coach John Harbaugh didn’t offer much clarity on the first-quarter problems when asked about them on Monday.
“Each game has been different,” Harbaugh said. “Every play and every series is different. There are different reasons for it. We’ve also had fast starts, too.”
The better starts have been few and far between as the Ravens have only scored more than seven points in the first quarter twice all season, the 28-point explosion against Tampa Bay in Week 6 and a 10-point effort against San Diego in Week 13. In contrast, Baltimore has failed to score in the opening quarter seven times this season while being shut out in only four other 15-minute periods.
The Ravens have scored 76 points in the first quarter this season with the 28 against the Buccaneers skewing the total substantially. They’ve scored 93 in the second, 91 in the third, and 129 in the fourth quarters of play.
So, what’s been the issue?
Some observers suggest the Ravens’ preference to defer whenever they win the coin toss as a potential factor. Baltimore has kicked off to begin games 10 times this year, but the offense has scored on three of five possessions when receiving the ball at the start of the game. Like Harbaugh, many coaches prefer receiving the ball to begin the second half when a game has already taken shape, but perhaps the Ravens offense needs to be thrown into the fire to wake up more quickly.
It’s fair to note that kicking off in the first quarter will limit a team’s possessions in the opening 15 minutes, but a 15-game body of work is too big of a sample to simply dismiss the problem.
“We give thought to that every week. We consider all the ramifications of that,” said Harbaugh about the decision to receive or defer. “We do what we think is best to win the game. We generally like to start on defense. That’s generally our rule of thumb. If you look at the stats on it, that’s the way to go. You have a little better chance, maybe a percent-and-a-half better at winning, historically, if you defer and kickoff.
“We also have a very good defense, so we like doing that. But it could change next week. It’s not to say that it couldn’t change or we have any aversion to taking the ball.”
Others wonder if offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak’s opening script of plays is either too predictable or fails to adjust to what a defense is showing in the early stages of the game. As was the case earlier in the year against Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and even Tennessee, the Texans showed plenty of A-gap blitzing to bring pressure up the middle against quarterback Joe Flacco. The Ravens failed to handle it physically or schematically in what was the start of a very long day.
But the biggest issue with the slow starts in recent weeks has been the absence of the running game, which has paced Baltimore to its 9-6 record and entered Sunday’s game ranked fifth in the NFL. In the last three games, the Ravens have gained only 18 yards on 10 carries in the first quarter.
The lack of production in the running game has led to far too many third-and-long situations and makes Flacco and the offense too predictable. The Ravens are 0-for-6 on third down in the first quarter over the last three weeks, failing to stay on schedule in sustaining drives.
“They’ve blitzed the run game quite a bit,” Harbaugh said. “In some games, we’ve handled that and made them pay for it, and some games we haven’t, and in this game we certainly didn’t hurt them.”
A game is rarely won or lost in the first quarter — as their overall record proves — but the Ravens’ most-recent streak of slow starts offensively finally caught up with them in dramatic fashion on Sunday. And if they manage to find their way into the postseason, the trend will need to be reversed if the Ravens want any good shot of competing beyond the first weekend in January.
It’s a weakness that’s prevented a good offense from being very good for the better part of the 2014 season.
“I guess I don’t feel as somber about it as you all do,” said Harbaugh about turning the page from the disappointment of Sunday. “There is no success without failure. You don’t improve and grow [without failure]. There’s a process to it all, and you come up short sometimes, and we came up short in this game, but that’s how you improve and get better.”