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Ravens offense has become a major liability

10/13/2013
Patrick Smith/Getty Images

BALTIMORE -- The Baltimore Ravens' comeback attempt ended when rookie safety Matt Elam failed to pull down Green Bay Packers tight end Jermichael Finley on third down late in the fourth quarter.

But no one should criticize the Ravens' defense. The Ravens' 19-17 loss to the Packers falls on their self-destructing offense, specifically a bumbling ground game. Six weeks into the regular season, the Ravens' defense has proven to be playoff caliber. By the end of the Ravens' first home loss of the season, it became clear that the offense is a liability.

The Ravens (3-3), who fell into second place in the AFC North, failed to score points despite running three plays inside the Packers' three-yard line. The offense gave up points when quarterback Joe Flacco was stripped from behind in the final seconds of the second quarter. And the Ravens surrendered yards when they were flagged four times for false starts -- at home.

You can blame the offensive line for not getting any push and making foolish penalties. You can blame Ray Rice for being too tentative. You can blame Flacco for holding onto the ball too long. You can even blame coach John Harbaugh for a couple of debatable decisions.

If you're looking for answers, you're probably not going to like to hear what Harbaugh has to say.

"The thing that we’re not going to do is overreact," Harbaugh said. "You don’t go in there and make any kind of major adjustments when you know you’re doing things well, and you’ve got the people to do it. We’re a work in progress, no doubt about it."

The problem is, there's been no sign of "progress" with the Ravens offense. When the defense was in shutdown mode on Aaron Rodgers, the offense managed a field goal in the first three quarters against a Packers defense without its best player in Clay Matthews.

The root of the Ravens' troubles is their running game. To be more accurate, it's a stumbling game. The Ravens finished with 47 yards rushing, averaging a woeful 2.1 yards per carry. How important is a ground attack for the Ravens? This is the ninth straight time the Ravens have lost when rushing for fewer than 60 yards.

"What you saw out there is not what we put out in practice -- we practiced so hard," Rice said. "I guess I’d use the words ‘a little frustrated.’"

I've seen the Ravens offense struggle mightily over the years, but they've always been able to run the ball. That's the disturbing part. Even in 2001, the Ravens still grinded out yards with Terry Allen and Jason Brookins. Now, Baltimore has trouble getting past the line of scrimmage with a Pro Bowl running back (Rice) and a Pro Bowl fullback (Vonta Leach). This is a team that has a coach, Juan Castillo, whose job title is run game coordinator.

Ravens’ rushers were hit in the backfield on nine of their 21 designed runs Sunday, according to ESPN Stats & Information. The Ravens haven’t been hit as many times in the backfield since Week 1 of the 2010 season against the New York Jets.

This is a reflection of poor blocking by the offensive line and indecisive running by Rice. The lack of a running game has hurt the Ravens' ability to extend drives. The Ravens were 2 of 14 (14 percent) on third downs, which is more of an indictment on the ground game.

Getting stopped on first and second downs put Baltimore in several third-and-longs. In fact, the Ravens needed at least 10 yards to convert on nine of those plays. The average distance to get a first down for the Ravens was 11.2 yards Sunday.

Flacco said it's like "fighting an uphill battle every single drive."

Harbaugh, though, keeps making aggressive decisions with the sputtering offense. He is showing too much confidence in an offense that hasn't shown it deserves it.

One of the turning points in the game was Harbaugh choosing to go for it on fourth-and-goal from the Packers' one-yard line. Instead of tying the game at 3 in the second quarter with a field goal, the Ravens came up empty when running back Bernard Pierce was stopped for no gain.

"You’ve got a high percentage opportunity to make that fourth-and-1," Harbaugh said. "I like our chances there."

The percentages are never in the Ravens' favor when it comes to running the ball. Before that fourth down, Ravens running backs combined for zero yards on nine carries. Why would anyone think the Ravens could gain one yard on fourth down?

The other questionable call came with 20 seconds left in the first half, when the Ravens chose to throw the ball from their own 34-yard line instead of running out the clock. Flacco got stripped from behind when left tackle Eugene Monroe got badly beat, and the Packers tacked on another field goal. It was a punch in the gut heading into halftime and showed the Ravens' problems go beyond a benched Bryant McKinnie.

"If you look closely at the NFL percentages, those are not reckless decisions, by any stretch," Harbaugh said. "Those are good decisions that, most of the time, are going to pay off for you. They didn’t pay off, it’s disappointing, but we should keep chasing that. We don’t want to be the kind of team that’s going to play nervous, not give our guys a chance, an opportunity, to do things and make plays. We just don’t want to play it like that. We’re going to be an attacking, aggressive type of group. It’s been good to us up until this point, so let’s build our team into that. We think we can get there. We’ve got the right guys to do it.”

The Ravens offense saved some face in the fourth quarter when Flacco completed a desperation, 63-yard pass to Tandon Doss to convert fourth-and-21 and close to within two points. But it doesn't overshadow the fact that the Ravens had 210 yards and three points through three quarters.

"It was too little, too late," said Flacco, who was 20-of-34 for 342 yards and two touchdowns. "We’ve just got to find a way to get it going for all four quarters.”

Until the offense can put together a complete game, the Ravens can't be considered a complete team.