Ravens Run Through AFC North?

On Monday, the Baltimore Ravens held their first off-site, public practice of 2014 at M&T Bank Stadium in downtown Baltimore. Legendary Linebacker Ray Lewis was there and received a great ovation from the crowd of more than 28,000 Ravens fans. Torrey Smith “wowed” the fans with a leaping, acrobatic, one handed catch and Steve Smith Sr put on a receiving clinic for the Ravens faithful.

Excitement was in the air as Ray Rice was introduced. He received a warm reception in spite of the recent announcement by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell that he would be suspended for the first two games of the 2014 season.  The atmosphere was truly “electric” and the mood was festive. Everyone had a great time, but today, the Raven’s must get back to the very serious business of making sure that the 2014 season does not end like 2013. 

The first order of business for the Ravens is to fix the running game. Gary Kubiak’s new Offensive system relies on running the ball effectively to set up “play action” passes. Last season, because the “rushing attack” was so ineffective (3.1 yards per carry, ranked last in the league), opposing teams ignored Joe Flacco’s “play fakes” and headed straight for him. The additional pressure contributed to the increase in sacks and interceptions.

Several reasons have been given for the Ravens’ anemic rushing performance. Primary among them has been the Offensive Line. Problems on the O-Line started almost immediately when Head Coach John Harbaugh took exception to the level of effort being exerted by Left Tackle Bryant McKinnie. In light of his lack-luster performance, McKinnie was traded to the Miami Dolphins after five games.

Right Tackle Michael Oher was also having problems. Oher, an average to below average rated Right Tackle, seemed to have difficulty adapting to the new zone blocking scheme installed by Offensive Line Coach and Running Game Coordinator Juan Castillo. Oher was inconsistent in run blocking, often ineffective in pass protection and racked up too many “false start” penalties, but the lack of depth on the Ravens’ roster limited the moves Coach Harbaugh could make, so Oher finished the season as a Raven.

“the Ravens must run the ball constantly, consistently and with maximum authority” — Ken Jackson

The problems at the Tackle position were significant but the O-Line problems did not end there. Left Guard Kelechi Osemele went down with a season ending injury in the seventh game and Right Guard Marshal Yanda, who had been injured in 2012, suffered from the effects of that injury throughout 2013. The last piece of the O-Line problem puzzle was second year player Gino Gradkowski who replaced retired All-Pro Center Matt Burke. Gradkowski was a first year starter and was clearly overwhelmed by the task. With the inexperienced Gradkowski trying to anchor the O-Line, the starting Guards either injured or “playing hurt” and the starting Tackles playing at a minor league level, the Ravens running game did not stand a chance of succeeding.

But there was more in this failure than the Offensive Line. Many good NFL Running Backs have had successful seasons running behind lines that couldn’t block air. So why did Ray Rice, a Back that had just completed his fourth season with over 1,000 rushing yards, and Bernard Pierce, a “downhill” runner with skills suitable for zone blocking, have so much trouble?

Ray Rice ran the ball 214 times in 2013. That was down from the 257 times he ran the ball in 2012 but the difference amounts to less than two fewer rushes per game. That does not account for the 1.3 yards per carry drop off he experienced last season.

Some of Rice’s carries went to Pierce (who jumped from 108 rushing attempts in 2012 to 152 last year) but Pierce’s yardage total also dropped. The only reasonable explanation I can fathom is injury.

Both Rice and Pierce appeared on the injury report several times during the year. Rice appeared weeks 3 and 4 for a hip injury and weeks 16 and 17 for an injured thigh. Pierce graced the report in weeks 2, 6 and 9 for a thigh and week 11 for both toe and knee injuries. I think it is safe to say that neither Rice nor Pierce was 100 percent last season.

The effect of failing to run the ball successfully has been felt throughout the Ravens organization.  General Manager Ozzie Newsome and Head Coach John Harbaugh both addressed the subject at their annual “Season Review” press conference held February 7, where they stressed the importance of strengthening the Ravens’ rushing attack. With these statements in mind, it was very surprising that the Ravens’ only moves during the “Free Agent Signing Period” and the NFL Draft was signing Justin Forsett, a 5’8”, 197 lbs journeyman Running Back who has never been a starter in the NFL and using their second draft pick of the fourth round on Lorenzo Taliaferro, a 6’0”, 226 lbs Back out of Coastal Carolina. While Rice and Pierce might be able to do the job; Pierce’s injury history, Rice’s upcoming suspension and little or no experienced depth at the Running Back position should give everyone “pause”. The Baltimore Ravens just might find themselves in the same ditch, without the same shovel in 2014.

In all fairness, the Ravens have taken some steps to improve the running game. They hired Gary Kubiak as the new Offensive Coordinator. They adopted Kubiak’s “west coast” styled Offense and his version of “stretch zone” line blocking. They also upgraded some Offensive line positions, such as replacing Gino Gradkowski with Jeremy Zuttah whom they obtained in a trade with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Some of the injured starters have returned or are in the final stages of their rehabilitation, which will help tremendously. Those moves alone should improve the rushing numbers.

In addition, the improved health of Ray Rice (who was hampered by a hip injury he suffered during the 2012 season) and Bernard Pierce (who suffered recurring effects from thigh, ankle and toe injuries) should improve their quickness and explosiveness. They will be expected to perform at a much higher level this year.

Some concerns still do exist. In addition to the lack of depth at Running Back, there is equal concern about the lack of depth at Guard. Another concern is how well the running styles of Ray Rice and Justin Forsett (both are “shake and bake” type runners) will fit into Kubiak’s zone blocking scheme. Finally, Right Tackle and Center remains, and will remain, an issue well into the regular season when we can see if Wagner and Zuttah are up to the task.

Even if the changes in offensive philosophy, scheme and execution work, major questions will follow Harbaugh, Kubiak and their Offense up to and into the regular season. Good execution isn’t enough; the Ravens must execute with passion, authority and aggressiveness.

LeGarrette Blount, newly acquired Running Back for the Pittsburgh Steelers, runs “angry.” He runs with an attitude. I do not see that intensity and passion in the Ravens’ offensive backfield. The Steelers, Bengals and Browns have coached their O-Lines to have a crazed, nasty, aggressive attitude on every play; the Ravens must do the same. If they want to break out of the doldrums and “stiff arm” their way to a playoff berth, the Ravens must run the ball constantly, consistently and with maximum authority. They cannot allow 2013 to happen all over again.

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