OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- If it seems as if the Baltimore Ravens are always playing from behind, it's probably because they typically are. Trailing early in games has become an increasingly bad habit because the offense continually fails to show up.
The Ravens rank third in fewest points scored in the first quarter (16) and second in fewest yards gained (average of 55.7). As a result, the Ravens haven't led at the end of the first quarter in their past seven games.
Why are the defending Super Bowl champions such slow starters?
"If we knew, it wouldn’t be happening," wide receiver Torrey Smith said. "All of our problems now are on us. We’ve got to go out there and get it done. There is no motivational speech, no action, no scheme change or anything that’s going to happen that’s going to magically make us turn it around. We’ve got to go out there and play ball. It’s really that simple.”
The problems start on the Ravens' opening drives, which have produced more frustration than points. In their eight games, the Ravens have scored once (a 42-yard field goal in Miami) and have gone three-and-out five times.
Jumping out to an early lead has been a barometer of success under coach John Harbaugh. When the Ravens score first, they are 41-8 (.836) over the past 5½ seasons. When the opponent scores first, Baltimore is 16-23 (.410) under Harbaugh.
Harbaugh stressed to his players before Wednesday's practice how important it is to start faster.
"Let’s come out of the gates. Let’s find a way to get a lead," Harbaugh said. "We have not been able to do that. Let’s find a way to do that with how we practice and how we prepare."
If the Ravens want to break this bad trend, they're going to need quarterback Joe Flacco to get hot quicker. In the first quarter, he ranks 26th in Total QBR (28.0), 25th in completion rate (56.1 percent) and 30th in yards per attempt (5.39).
The inability to convert third downs and extend drives has been a struggle in first quarters throughout the season. The Ravens haven't gotten a first down on nearly half of their first-quarter drives (11 of 21).
"We’re just not good enough at converting and putting ourselves in situations where we’re fighting a battle that we can win consistently," Flacco said. "We’re putting ourselves in situations that are tough and are uphill. When you do that, it’s tough to get going for an 80-yard drive. We usually come out into the second half and start it pretty well there, but it’s just taking us awhile to get going early on. We just haven’t been good enough across the board in terms of precision in the passing game and getting the running game going and getting first downs. That stuff leads to first downs. We just haven’t done it.”
Like many teams, the Ravens script their plays to start the game. They typically have a couple of sets of 15 plays. Harbaugh said offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell has "tweaked a few things" to jump-start the Ravens.
In the seven games under Caldwell last season, the Ravens scored five offensive touchdowns in the first quarter. In eight games this year, Baltimore has reached the end zone only once. Only the St. Louis Rams (3-6) and winless Jacksonville Jaguars (0-8) have as few as the Ravens.
Caldwell said the slow starts are not a "one-person thing."
"We just haven’t been clicking on all cylinders right at the onset, and that’s something John [Harbaugh] keeps pounding home," Caldwell said. "You try and make certain that, when we go out to practice, we try to start the practice fast, start it with intent and minimize mistakes -- all those things. We have to keep working on it. But it’s not good right now -- it hasn’t been.”
It could be a challenge getting off to a fast start Sunday against the Cincinnati Bengals, who haven't allowed a point in the first quarter in their past two games.