OWINGS MILLS, Md. — If all goes to plan against the 2-11 Jacksonville Jaguars on Sunday, the Ravens won’t need to flex too much muscle in the fourth quarter.
But their ability to pound opponents with the running game in the final 15 minutes is a major reason why Baltimore owns a 7-1 record when leading at the end of three quarters. Criticized for an inability to finish games last season on their way to an 8-8 record, the Ravens have used the league’s fifth-ranked rushing attack to wear down opposing defenses to the point where they’ve often appeared to quit from a physical standpoint.
“We haven’t closed out every game in the fourth quarter,” said Harbaugh, likely referencing the 10-point lead the Ravens squandered in the fourth quarter of their loss to San Diego two weeks ago. “We feel like that’s something that has been a point of emphasis for us to finish — to finish runs, to finish blocks, to finish series, to finish in the red zone, to finish games in the fourth quarter.”
That effort has been led by one of the league’s best offensive lines and running back Justin Forsett, who is averaging a remarkable 7.0 yards per carry in the fourth quarter. Only Kansas City’s Jamaal Charles and New Orleans’ Khiry Robinson have better averages in the final period, but Forsett’s 348 yards and 50 fourth-quarter carries are more than the other two have combined.
Half of the Ravens’ NFL-best 20 runs of 20 or more yards this season have come in the fourth quarter when the offensive line has consistently worn down front sevens to protect leads and control the clock.
“That’s what we want to do. That’s what the run game provides,” said Forsett, who leads all running backs with a 5.6 yards per carry average and has rushed for a career-high 1,080 yards. “Every time we come out, we know it might not pop right off the bat, but we believe if we keep doing what we’re doing, we’re going to wear defenses down, and we’re going to be able to gas them late in the game, and we’ve had some success doing that.”
While Forsett has surprisingly handled the workload in the aftermath of Ray Rice’s release, the Ravens haven’t hesitated in going to fresh legs as backup Bernard Pierce has averaged 5.5 yards per carry in the fourth quarter, good for seventh in the NFL. Of Pierce’s 323 rushing yards this season, 144 have come in the last period — including 50 against Miami this past Sunday.
Of course, it’s been a balanced attack that’s allowed the Ravens to build so many late leads this season, but the running game has been the biggest reason why they rank second in the league in fourth-quarter scoring and fourth-quarter time of possession — Pittsburgh ranks first in each category. And it’s why the stunning loss against San Diego has been the exception and not the norm as the Ravens have needed to mask the league’s 31st-ranked pass defense.
“When it gets tough and gets late, the confidence to run the football is huge,” offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak said. “I think last week,  of our yards were actually in the fourth quarter. That’s important. In this league, a lot of close football games you have to win the fourth quarter, and I’m sure this week won’t be any different.”
Miles latest man up at safety
In a season in which five safeties have played meaningful snaps at various points, Jeromy Miles has been the latest to receive extensive action the last two weeks.
Playing 43 of 57 defensive snaps against Miami and 70 of 72 snaps against San Diego, Miles has essentially supplanted Darian Stewart as a starter next to Will Hill on the back end. The fifth-year safety received Pro Football Focus’ highest grade of any defensive player in the San Diego game and was again solid in coverage against the Dolphins, which prompted defensive coordinator Dean Pees to offer a vote of confidence that Miles will continue to receive extensive work.
“It was a matter of, ‘Alright, let’s give each guy a shot and see where it goes and see how he plays that game,’” Pees said. “‘Did he lose the job? Did he keep the job? Are we going to split the time?’ It’s really not a matter of other guys doing stuff poorly. He has done some things well, so it’s kind of like, ‘Why take him out?’ [We are] going to keep giving him a shot.”
There weren’t any significant changes to the Ravens’ injury report on Thursday as wide receiver Torrey Smith (knee), running back Lorenzo Taliaferro (foot), and tight end Crockett Gillmore (back) missed practice for a second straight day with the availability of all three in doubt for Sunday’s game.
Veterans Steve Smith, Daryl Smith, and Owen Daniels received the day off as they often do on Thursdays while cornerback Anthony Levine (concussion) was upgraded to full participation, a good sign for Sunday’s game.
Below is Thursday’s official injury report:
DID NOT PARTICIPATE: TE Owen Daniels (non-injury), TE Crockett Gillmore (back), LB Daryl Smith (non-injury), WR Steve Smith (non-injury), WR Torrey Smith (knee), RB Lorenzo Talliaferro (foot)
LIMITED PARTICIPATION: OL Jah Reid (hand)
FULL PARTICIPATION: CB Anthony Levine (concussion)
OUT: RB Denard Robinson (foot)
DID NOT PARTICIPATE: DE Andre Branch (groin), DE Chris Clemons (knee), LB Khairi Fortt (hamstring), LB Geno Hayes (rest)
FULL PARTICIPATION: QB Blake Bortles (right shoulder), S Josh Evans (finger), RB Toby Gerhart (ankle), WR Tommy Streeter (abdominal), LB J.T. Thomas (ankle)