OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The Ravens had made it a one-possession game for the first time since the opening period and needed a defensive stop in the fourth quarter at Cincinnati last Thursday.
Instead, the Bengals marched 65 yards and took more than six minutes off the clock before Randy Bullock’s 28-yard field goal made it a 31-23 deficit with 2:59 remaining. Just under half of that yardage came on the ground as Cincinnati rushed six times for 32 yards, including Joe Mixon’s 21-yard cutback run that was the key play in setting up an easy field goal.
No, the Bengals’ rushing attack didn’t gash the Ravens, but 108 yards on 28 carries over the course of the night helped control the tempo after quarterback Andy Dalton connected with wide receiver A.J. Green for three touchdown passes in the game’s first 17 minutes.
“It was OK — not great. It needs to be better. It’s not to our standards,” said head coach John Harbaugh of his run defense. “All our guys will probably echo that. We have a high, high standard. It might be good enough for other teams around the league, but it’s not going to be good enough for us.”
Lost in the heartbreak of “fourth-and-12” and the focus on Jimmy Smith’s absence at the end of last season was the declining standard of the rush defense. Stopping the run has defined the Ravens more than any other quality over two-plus decades in Baltimore as they finished in the top 10 in yards per carry allowed for 20 straight seasons and had only four finishes outside the top nine in rushing yards surrendered from 1999-2016.
In 2017, however, the Ravens finished just 16th in yards per carry allowed and surrendered a full 4.0 yards per carry — without rounding up or down — for the first time in franchise history last season. They also ranked 15th in rushing yards per game surrendered. The four-game absence of run-stopping nose tackle Brandon Williams in the first half of the season didn’t help those numbers, but the Ravens still allowed more than 3.9 yards per carry in the 12 games he played, which would have left them 10th in the NFL.
It was less than two years ago when the Ravens ranked first in run defense entering Week 14 of the 2016 season and some were even singing the group’s praises from a historical context. Baltimore lost three of the final four games that season while giving up 544 rushing yards and six touchdowns on 4.4 yards per carry to drop them from that all-time-great conversation to fifth in the league. The Ravens’ run defense has had strong games since then, but the unit has yet to recapture its aura or same level of consistency.
To be clear, the run defense hardly qualifies as a weakness, but when you devote the kind of resources the Ravens have to the defensive side of the ball in terms of cap dollars and draft picks in recent years, you’d like to see more dominant results and less wavering at critical times. It’s certainly something Harbaugh’s team wants to get back to in 2018, beginning with Sunday’s tilt against 2-0 Denver.
The surprising Broncos enter Week 3 ranked second in the NFL in rushing offense and are trying not to put too much on the right shoulder of quarterback Case Keenum, who is coming off a surprising 2017 season with Minnesota after years as a journeyman. Despite being listed third on the Broncos’ current depth chart, rookie running back Phillip Lindsay is third in the league in rushing and became the first undrafted player in NFL history to eclipse 100 yards from scrimmage in each of his first two games.
“It’s incredible, these [rookie] free agent running backs around the league,” Harbaugh said. “He’s fast — that’s what stands out about him. He’s quick, he’s kind of fearless. They put him in good situations, [and] they get the ball to both rookie backs — [Royce] Freeman from Oregon, too.
“They get the ball outside quick on the edge a couple different ways. They run a lot of draws really well, some screens. They get him in space. The offensive line has done a good job, but this kid is running and he’s making plays with his speed and his fearlessness.”
The Ravens could be without three-time Pro Bowl linebacker C.J. Mosley on Sunday, but it will be up to the rest of the front seven to slow the backfield trio of Lindsay, Freeman, and Devontae Booker. Even with talented Broncos receivers Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders to consider, the Ravens will try to force Keenum to beat them through the air as he’s already thrown four interceptions in two home games with his new team.
On the flip side, Baltimore needs to get its own running game going after averaging just 3.3 yards per carry in the first two weeks. Game situation has certainly impacted the ground attack as the Ravens were throwing the ball against Buffalo at will in the season opener and the Bengals exploded to an early 21-point lead last Thursday, but quarterback Joe Flacco throwing 50-plus times just hasn’t been a formula for success over the years.
Running back Alex Collins has touched the ball just 20 times for 109 total yards over the first two contests after nearly rushing for 1,000 yards and ranking ninth in the league in yards per carry last season. According to Pro Football Focus, Collins has forced 10 missed tackles on those 20 touches in 2018, which would suggest a need to block better and to give him the ball more frequently.
“We’re not in any way pleased with the numbers,” Harbaugh said. “And we’re very determined to run the ball well because we think it fits our offense. It’s something that opens everything else up, so we have to get that going.”
Stopping the run and running the ball, two staples of success the Ravens need to rediscover entering a critical early-season stretch that includes four road games in the next six weeks.