The Ravens have lost their way.
That statement carries many connotations these days as Baltimore holds a 2-7 record for the first time since 2005, but it’s especially true when examining the disappearance of the running game after the Ravens finished eighth in the NFL with 126.2 rushing yards per game under Gary Kubiak a year ago. Despite maintaining that it was in the Ravens’ DNA to run the football when they hired pass-happy offensive coordinator Marc Trestman, head coach John Harbaugh has seen his rushing attack plummet to 23rd in the NFL with just 98.1 yards on the ground per game. The Ravens rank 18th in the league at 4.0 yards per carry after averaging a healthier 4.5 yards per attempt in 2014.
The running game again wasn’t a major factor in Sunday’s 22-20 loss to Jacksonville as the Ravens carried 21 times for 89 yards while Joe Flacco attempted 45 passes.
“We’d like to run the ball more; there’s no question,” Harbaugh said. “On the other hand, if you look at the defenses [the Jaguars] were playing, there were eight guys within four or five yards of the line of scrimmage at all times, pretty much, and even then, we had some really good runs. We had some nice runs in the second half. We weren’t able to finish in four-minute [drill] like we would have wanted to; we were close to popping a couple of those runs.
“In the first half, we weren’t getting much. If we could have converted a couple more first downs there, you would have seen more runs. It’s something we had planned on doing. We were going to run it at them anyway, but we just didn’t get the opportunities that we wanted to.”
It’s fair to note that the Jaguars entered Sunday ranked seventh in the NFL in run defense, but the Ravens barely even tried in the first half with just four designed runs compared to 29 drop-backs for Flacco in his first game since No. 1 receiver Steve Smith was lost for the season. As for Harbaugh’s explanation, the Ravens picked up 11 first downs in the first 30 minutes of action, which wasn’t indicative of a team struggling to get on schedule with moving the chains.
Asked if Flacco checked out of a high number of plays at the line of scrimmage because of the Jaguars stacking the box, Harbaugh said that there were only a couple instances when the original play was changed, leading one to conclude that Trestman was responsible for the out-of-whack ratio. The pass-happy attack may have found success to the tune of 14 points and 223 yards of offense in the first half, but the approach backfired in the third quarter with Flacco turning the ball over on the first three possessions after intermission.
The Ravens carried 16 times for 70 yards in the second half.
“We knew we had some opportunities in the passing game, but we always look to run,” said running back Justin Forsett, who finished with 53 yards on 14 carries. “It’s just tough that we didn’t get it going faster. If we had, we would’ve been able to run the ball a little bit better. At the end, we just didn’t finish well.”
It’s easy to point to the opponent to defend Trestman’s approach on Sunday, but the Ravens also ran six times — one was a quarterback kneel — for 15 yards in the first half against San Diego, a run defense that currently ranks 27th in the NFL. Not counting plays resulting in sacks, the Ravens rank 26th in the NFL in running the ball just 37.29 percent of the time in 2015.
Last year, Baltimore ran the ball 44.67 percent of the time to rank 11th in the league.
Is it understandable to expect more passing in 2015 with the Ravens trailing in more games? Absolutely, but Baltimore has trailed by more than one score in the second half of just four games this year and one of those was the comeback win at Pittsburgh when the Ravens ran for almost 200 yards in an overtime victory. It’s difficult to say you’re committed to the running game when it wasn’t even allowed to find a rhythm in the first half of each of the last two games when they never trailed by more than seven points.
Whether because of a lack of commitment or production — or both — a ground game that returned the same starting running back and same starting offensive line from a year ago continues to be a significant disappointment under Trestman. It’s made life even more difficult on Flacco, who is trying to succeed with arguably the most underwhelming group of pass-catchers in the NFL.
The Ravens rank ninth in the NFL with 263.6 passing yards per game, but they’re 25th at 6.7 yards per attempt. For the second time in three years, the offense has fallen on Flacco’s shoulders despite a substandard cast of receivers around him.
Despite what the coaching staff has said at numerous times this season, there doesn’t appear to be much urgency to get the ground game going after the latest soft showing against Jacksonville.
“The run game is something to talk about,” Harbaugh said on Monday. “We were looking at it hard this morning, this afternoon with the coaches. Early in the game, we’re a block here and a block there away from popping runs. But a block here and a block there doesn’t get it done. We did a lot of things with scheme. We had a lot of formations. We protected our edges with tight ends and with seal blocks coming back and sift blocks coming back the other way. We did a good job of protecting our edges. But inside of all that, they had a couple of little changeups with their linebackers that gave us a little trouble that we sorted out toward the end of the game, [and we] had some better runs.”
Entering 2015, the running game was supposed to be the rock-solid commodity for a Ravens offense that experienced plenty of change in the offseason. Instead, it’s become just another of the many problems plaguing a 2-7 football team.