AFC North: Bernard Pierce

OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- Now that the Baltimore Ravens know they will be without Ray Rice for two games, they have to figure out who will be replacing him at running back when they face the Cincinnati Bengals and the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Rice is coming off the worst season of his career, averaging 3.1 yards per carry last season. But he clearly remains the team's best running back.

Pierce
The Ravens' top choice to fill in for Rice is Bernard Pierce. A year ago, he appeared to be on the verge of a breakout season after being a key factor in the Ravens' Super Bowl run. Then, just like Rice last season, Pierce struggled mightily, averaging 2.9 yards per carry -- second worst in the NFL among qualifying running backs.

Pierce, who was limited all offseason after having shoulder surgery, looked to be in good shape as the Ravens opened training camp this week. Still, Pierce has one career start in the NFL.

“I’m very confident in Bernard. I've always liked Bernard," coach John Harbaugh said. "He's a heck of a player. He’s worked very hard, he’s 217 pounds, [and] he's in the best shape of his life. He looked good out here the last couple of days. We'll know more by Tuesday once we get the pads on and seeing him move with the pads on and how the shoulder holds up -- that'll be important."

There are other question marks in the backfield after the Ravens were unable to lure the likes of Chris Johnson and LeGarrette Blount in free agency.

The Ravens' biggest free-agent addition at running back was Justin Forsett. He's been impressive in offseason practices with his elusiveness and burst. The Ravens consider him underrated, and he's the only back who has a familiarity with Gary Kubiak's offense. But there are concerns about the durability of Forsett, a smallish back who had a grand total of six carries last season for the Jacksonville Jaguars.

The other options for Baltimore is rookie fourth-round pick Lorenzo Taliaferro. Unlike Forsett, Taliaferro is a big, power back. The challenge for Taliaferro is adjusting to the NFL after playing for Coastal Carolina.

"I have a lot of confidence in all of our guys," Harbaugh said.
» NFC Preview: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South


NFL Nation's Jamison Hensley examines the three biggest issues facing the Baltimore Ravens heading into training camp.

Filling in for Ray Rice's expected absence: The Ravens are coming off the worst rushing season in franchise history and likely will have to revive the ground game without having Rice for a period of time. He is expected to be suspended by the NFL for his off-the-field incident this offseason. After not signing a high-profile free agent such as LeGarrette Blount, the Ravens are left with no experienced starters in the backfield beyond Rice. Bernard Pierce, Justin Forsett and Lorenzo Taliaferro have combined for eight career starts. Pierce is the favorite to take over the starting job, but he was limited this entire offseason after having shoulder surgery. Forsett, the primary backup this spring, had a total of six carries last season. And Taliaferro is a fourth-round rookie from Coastal Carolina. Defenses could see a heavy dose of Pierce if he's healthy, or the Ravens could go with a running back by committee. Even when Rice returns, he has to prove he can be a productive runner again after averaging a career-worst 3.1 yards per carry last season. The Ravens believe they can turn around their running attack with the hiring of offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak, who has built successful ground games in the past with his zone-blocking scheme.

Sorting out secondary competition: Two of the biggest questions on defense involve position battles in the secondary -- free safety and nickelback. The competition at free safety didn't unfold as expected this spring. It was presumed that Terrence Brooks was the front-runner for the job after the Ravens selected him in the third round. Instead, Brooks hasn't seen time with the first or second teams this offseason, and Darian Stewart has taken most of the reps at free safety. When the Ravens signed Stewart in free agency, he was considered a fallback option. He had six starts last season for the St. Louis Rams. Now, it looks as if free safety is Stewart's job to lose. At nickelback, Asa Jackson and Chykie Brown were fighting for the job all offseason. But it was presumed the Ravens would add a veteran when neither stood out this offseason. The Ravens, in fact, brought in two free agents, Aaron Ross and Dominique Franks, to make it a four-player race for the No. 3 corner spot behind starters Jimmy Smith and Lardarius Webb. If Ross and Stewart end up winning the open jobs, they can thank secondary coach Steve Spagnuolo, who previously coached them in the NFL.

Preparing Rick Wagner to start at right tackle: The Ravens were expected to draft an offensive tackle. They didn't. There was speculation the Ravens might sign free agent Eric Winston, who has ties with Kubiak. But again, the Ravens didn't make a move. By standing pat, the team has given a major vote of confidence to Wagner. A fifth-round pick from a year ago, he has been penciled in to replace Michael Oher, who signed with the Tennessee Titans in free agency. As a rookie last year, Wagner struggled when he had to replace an injured Oher in the season opener. Wagner improved throughout his rookie year as the team's No. 6 offensive lineman, playing when the team wanted an extra blocker on the field (12 percent of the offensive snaps). The Ravens realized Wagner needs a lot of snaps to gain confidence in his technique, and they've been giving him plenty of reps during offseason practices. If Wagner doesn't live up to expectations when the hitting begins in training camp, the Ravens have other options. They could move left guard Kelechi Osemele to right tackle, give Ryan Jensen more snaps at that position or sign Winston. At this point, the Ravens are banking on Wagner as their season-opening starter at right tackle.
It's time to click open this weekend's Baltimore Ravens mailbag ...

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Baltimore Ravens coach John Harbaugh gave updates on some injured players after the end of rookie minicamp Saturday ...

Offensive lineman Kelechi Osemele: He underwent season-ending back surgery in November. "K.O. [Kelechi Osemele] looks good. He’s been out here; he’s been 100 percent in what we’ve been allowed to do so far. So, we have seen really no issues with him at all."

Running back Bernard Pierce: He underwent rotator cuff surgery in January. "He’s been allowed to move around a little bit, but we just can’t risk him falling on it right now and getting a setback. So, you’re probably looking at training camp for him, which shouldn’t be an issue as long as you don’t get a setback.”

Wide receiver Michael Campanaro: The seventh-round pick tweaked his hamstring before the start of minicamp and sat out both practices. "He is going to have to work that back into shape and hopefully he’ll be back out there next week."

Defensive end Brent Urban: The fourth-round pick didn't participate in the Ravens' rookie minicamp, although it was expected. Urban had ankle surgery earlier this year and is not expected to practice until the end of the month at the earliest.
Ray RiceAP Photo/Tom DiPaceRay Rice has been the Ravens' lead running back the past five seasons. Are those days over?
BALTIMORE -- Shortly after becoming the Baltimore Ravens' offensive coordinator, Gary Kubiak made this pronouncement: "As Ray Rice goes, we’ll go." Two months later, Kubiak obviously has to make his first audible.

The Ravens need to take a running back in this year's draft, because they need insurance not only for this season but for the future. The best investment the Ravens could make in the middle rounds is to select a running back such as Towson's Terrance West, Washington's Bishop Sankey, Florida State's Devonta Freeman, Boston College's Andre Williams or West Virginia's Charles Sims.

Much of the talk at running back has centered on how much time Rice will miss in 2014, and it's a legitimate concern after he was indicted for third-degree aggravated assault after allegedly striking his now-wife unconscious. Rice was arrested and charged with simple assault-domestic violence Feb. 15 after a physical altercation with Janay Palmer at the Revel Casino and Hotel in Atlantic City, N.J. Even if Rice is found not guilty or avoids jail time, he is expected to face punishment from the NFL under the league's personal conduct policy.

The Ravens have repeatedly voiced their support for Rice, and owner Steve Bisciotti said he believes Rice has a future with the team. But the Ravens' front office is too shrewd to rest all of its hopes on Rice. No one knows what to expect out of Rice when he does line up in the Ravens' backfield. He is coming off a season in which he averaged a career-worst 3.1 yards per carry and produced more fumbles (two) than 20-yard runs (one).

The Ravens have done their part to help this offseason by re-signing left tackle Eugene Monroe and trading for center Jeremy Zuttah. Rice is working hard to rebound and has reportedly lost 15 pounds. What if this isn't enough? Bisciotti acknowledged at the end of the season that the team did bring up the question of whether Rice is done.

Numbers suggest Rice's days as a premier playmaker in the league are over. The wear and tear of the position has caught up to most of the running backs in the 2008 draft class. Of the top 10 backs taken that year, six averaged less than 4 yards per carry last season, and two are out of the league.

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Those who defend Rice will say he lacked explosion after injuring his hip in Week 2 and he didn't have any running room because of the Ravens' dreadful offensive line. There is just no reasoning behind why Rice failed to make plays when catching the ball in space. He averaged 5.5 yards per reception, which was the worst of his career by an average of two yards. Since that memorable "Hey Diddle Diddle Ray Rice Up The Middle" moment in November 2012 -- when Rice converted a fourth-and-29 in San Diego with a 29-yard catch and run -- he has had three catches over 20 yards. That is over a span of 24 games, and only 13 of those came after Rice's injury.

Rice turned 27 this year, which is a telling age for NFL running backs. As ESPN's Kevin Seifert pointed out, running backs are peaking at 27 before suffering significant drop-offs. This is why 72 percent of running backs currently under contract are 26 or younger.

If Rice misses games or struggles again, the Ravens don't have much of a safety net. Backup running back Bernard Pierce's stock dropped last season. Pierce averaged 2.9 yards per carry, which was second-worst among qualified running backs, and couldn't stay healthy for a second straight year. He won't practice until the start of training camp after offseason shoulder surgery. There is no guarantee that he'll be at full strength when the season begins or whether he has the durability to handle the starting job for an extended period.

The need to draft a running back increased this offseason when the Ravens signed Justin Forsett in free agency instead of LeGarrette Blount as their third running back. Forsett has experience in Kubiak's system, but it's never a good sign to have "cut by the Jaguars" on your résumé.

It's no longer a question of if the Ravens should draft a running back. It's a matter of when. Most draft analysts have the Ravens selecting an offensive lineman and a safety in the first two rounds. The Ravens might consider using a pick on a running back in the third round, where they have two picks (79th and 99th overall), or fourth round (138th overall).

ESPN draft analyst Steve Muench's top picks in the middle rounds are:

  • West Virginia's Sims: "Doesn't have great power but sudden with quick feet and outstanding in the passing game."
  • Boston College's Williams: "Minimal production in passing game, and to a lesser degree, injury history, are concerns. As a runner he's a battering ram, and he shows deceptive speed when he gets a seam."
  • Towson's West: "He's a tough, hard-nosed runner who has flown under radar at Towson, and it would be a great story if he ended up staying in Maryland. If they can get him late fourth he could prove to be a steal."

Running the ball has long been a foundation of the Ravens' offense, and it will be a big part of Kubiak's play calling. Over the past five seasons, only five other teams ran the ball more than Kubiak's Texans. Establishing a strong running game is his blueprint to set up the play-action pass.

The importance of a running back in Kubiak's offense can't be overstated. That is why the Ravens have to make it a priority to draft a running back this year, whether it's for a contingency plan in 2014 or an investment for the future.

No one expected the Ravens to take a running back in 2008, when they drafted Rice in the second round. Six years later, it would be a surprise if the Ravens didn't draft his potential successor.
For the next two weeks, let's a take a position-by-position review of the Baltimore Ravens' 2013 season and give a sneak peek of what lies ahead:

RUNNING BACKS

Rice
Rice
Under contract (2014 salary-cap number): RB Ray Rice ($8.75 million), RB Bernard Pierce ($708,986), FB Vonta Leach ($2.33M), FB Kyle Juszczyk (570,146) and RB Cierre Wood (reserve-future contract).

2014 free agents: RB Bernard Scott.

The good: Rice didn't have a terrible finish to the season, averaging a season-high 3.9 yards per carry and 7.2 yards per reception in the month of December. The high point of his season was rushing for 131 yards and a touchdown at Chicago, the NFL's worst run defense. That accounted for 20 percent of his rushing total for the season. Pierce didn't make as much of an impact as expected, but the Ravens were 6-1 when he gained at least 30 yards rushing.

The bad: Rice (3.1 yards per carry) and Pierce (2.9) ranked in the NFL's bottom four in rushing average, an indication that the bigger problem was the offensive line. Rice ran for 660 yards, the first time he didn't gain gain at least 1,100 yards since becoming the featured back in 2009. Pierce had 44 more carries than his rookie season, but finished with 96 fewer yards. Leach was phased out of the offense after the Ravens acknowledged they couldn't run the ball. He averaged 14 offensive plays per game, earning nearly $9,000 per snap.

The money: Rice is not a candidate to be a salary-cap casualty even though he has a high cap number (fifth-highest on Ravens) and had a career-worst season. His contract was front-loaded, so the Ravens wouldn't create any cap room by cutting him. The more likely cap casualty is Leach. He had almost no role in the offense after the Ravens went to a three-receiver set, and the Ravens can free up $1.75 million in cap room.

Draft priority: Moderate. Rice could be on his way out with another lackluster season in 2014, and Pierce can't stay healthy. Pierce will have rotator cuff surgery, which might keep him out until training camp. Don't look for the Ravens to use a first- or second-round pick on a running back, but no one should be surprised if the team took one after that.
With the Baltimore Ravens continuing to rank last in the NFL in yards per carry, one of the hot topics is who should be the team's starting running back Sunday against the Chicago Bears.

SportsNation

Who should be the Ravens' starting running back?

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    36%
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    64%

Discuss (Total votes: 1,863)

Ravens coach John Harbaugh said Monday that there are no plans to replace Ray Rice with backup Bernard Pierce, although he acknowledged the team will stick with the back who has the hotter hand in games. The Ravens team page on ESPN.com wants to know your thoughts. Should the Ravens start Rice or Pierce?

Rice is averaging 36.1 yards rushing, which ranks 38th in the NFL. His average of 2.5 yards per carry is worst among starting running backs.

Pierce has struggled as well, averaging 29 yards per game and 2.8 yards per carry. But he did lead the Ravens in rushing Sunday with 31 yards despite 10 fewer carries than Rice.

My suggestion is to go with Pierce because he looked like the more explosive runner Sunday. After recording your vote, send me your opinion on the running-back issue to the Ravens mailbag by clicking here. Your comments could be published in a post at the end of the week.
Baltimore Raves running back Ray RicePatrick Smith/Getty ImagesThe Ravens are on pace to average fewer than 3 yards a carry this season, a rare feat in NFL history.
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OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- The Baltimore Ravens' run game has been more than embarrassingly bad this season. It's getting to the point where it is on track to be historically bad.

Halfway through the season, the Ravens are averaging 2.78 yards per carry, the worst mark in the NFL. If they finish with that average or worse, it would be the lowest for a team since the 1953 New York Giants (2.6-yard average). Just how long ago was that? The Cardinals were playing in Chicago, and the Colts were playing their first season in Baltimore.

Failing to average more than 3 yards per carry is a rarity in this league. To put it in perspective, since 1948, there have been as many 2,000-yard rushers in the NFL (seven) as teams who have averaged fewer than 3 yards per carry. The Ravens could be the first team to do so since the 1994 New England Patriots.

"The only thing you can do is stay after it and get better with your technique," guard Marshal Yanda said. "You can’t worry about the past. The past is gone and we can’t change that. We have got to worry about trying to get it right this week. Obviously, we’ve been trying to get it right all season but it hasn’t gone our way yet. That doesn’t change our mindset. We’re still going after it. Everybody on this team wants to get it right."

The Ravens' run game has been so terrible this season that it's unfair to blame one person or area of the team. What the Ravens don't talk much about is how every phase hasn't been at full strength this season.

Running backs Ray Rice (hip) and Bernard Pierce (hamstring) have battled injuries. Three starters on the offensive line -- Yanda (shoulder), left guard Kelechi Osemele (back) and right tackle Michael Oher (ankle) -- have either missed time during the season because of an injury or had surgery this offseason.

The result has been few running lanes opened by the offensive line and little burst from the running backs.

"This is the first time in my entire life being in a situation like this," said Rice, who apologized for not speaking after Sunday's loss in Cleveland. "There’s a first time for everything. I know where I stand on this team. I know I’m a leader. And now, I’m going to go out there and be the best Ray Rice I can be in the second half of the season."

Rice's worst season since becoming the featured back in 2009 was last season, when he ran for 1,143 yards. This year, he's not even on pace to produce half that total (555 yards).

His average of 37 yards per game ranks 35th in the NFL, and his average of 2.7 yards per carry is second-worst among qualified running backs (Willis McGahee is last at 2.6 yards per carry).

Does Rice take offense when he hears that fans and media think he's done?

"A down year is not going to make or break me as a person," Rice said. "I’ve been through a lot worse averaging what I’m averaging in carries. I got broad shoulders. I can take it from anybody else. As long as you’re not jumping on my front lawn, you’re all right."

The flak directed at Rice hasn't reached Matt Schaub extremes, and Rice isn't the only one struggling. Pierce, his backup, is also averaging 2.7 yards per carry. That's right: two of the three backs with at least 50 carries and less than a 3-yard average are on the Ravens.

Coach John Harbaugh declined to say whether Rice isn't finding the holes or leaving yards on the field.

"Every play is so different," Harbaugh said. "We have got to find a way to make fewer mistakes and more plays, and try to find a way to put that together for everybody. We can block plays better. We can get in better plays. We can run against better looks. We can create better situations to put our players in position to make plays."

[+] EnlargeJohn Harbaugh
Patrick McDermott/Getty Images"We have got to find a way to make fewer mistakes and more plays," coach John Harbaugh said.
This has been a dramatic drop for the Ravens, whose glory days were built on running the ball and playing dominating defense. Last season, Baltimore averaged 4.3 yards per carry, which was 12th in the NFL.

In a bad case of irony, the Ravens added a run-game coordinator for the first time in their history (Juan Castillo) and they're having their worst season running the ball. Offensive tackle Bryant McKinnie, who was traded to Miami, has since blamed Castillo for the struggling run game. Much has been made of the Ravens changing to more of a zone-blocking team this season, but Harbaugh insists the Ravens have used this scheme since he became coach in 2008.

The Ravens, though, have made changes to get the ground game on track. They have tried to run with fullback Vonta Leach and two tight ends. They have tried to run out of the shotgun with three wide receivers. They even used the pistol formation Sunday at Cleveland.

Nothing has worked, which makes you wonder whether the players have doubts it'll ever improve this season.

"We’re going to earn our confidence by doing well," Harbaugh said. "I think fundamentally, we have a confident group. There’s no question that all of us are confident. We know we can get it done and we know we can get there. But, until you start doing it with some consistency, it’s hard to be confident in what you’re doing. So, sure, we have to get that done. It’s the cart before the horse [scenario]. We have confidence, but as we start doing things, it will build on that confidence."

The disturbing part for the Ravens is they're not facing the 1985 Chicago Bears defense every week. In their first eight games, the Ravens have faced a top-10 run defense three times.

On Sunday, the Ravens go against the AFC North-leading Cincinnati Bengals, who rank 10th against the run.

"I still believe we will get the run game going," Rice said. "We have the guys. It’s never going to be an effort thing. We’ve just seen some pretty good fronts and I’ve battled through some stuff this year. For the next eight games, I’m going to try to be the Ray Rice I can be."
If you want a full transcript of this week's Baltimore Ravens' chat, you can click right here. If you want some highlights, simply continue reading ...

Philip (Maryland): So, what's up with the running game this year? Ray Rice looks like he's still hurt. I mean, even Bernard Pierce is taking away some of his receptions, something no other running back has ever done since Rice got there. On top of that, the Ravens just have no run blocking scheme that works, mainly runs up the middle. Are we seeing just how important center Matt Birk was to this offensive line?

Jamison Hensley (ESPN): Even though Rice says he's at full strength, I'm not buying it. There's something "off" with him this year. It's going to be a challenge to run the ball with two banged-up backs (Bernard Pierce has a hamstring injury) and three offensive linemen who are dealing with injuries (Marshal Yanda, Kelechi Osemele and Michael Oher). Not going to get much push off the line that way.

Mayer (New Jersey): Are the Ravens planning on doing anything to shore up the defensive line? We hear a lot about their offensive struggles, but the defense's inability to stop the run keeps the offense from getting into rhythm (for example only four drives in the first half) and it tires out the rest of the defense. It seems like the time of possession battle is something that the Ravens need to seriously upgrade.

Jamison Hensley (ESPN): Haloti Ngata has a strained elbow, and Chris Canty is dealing with a groin injury. The hope is the Ravens run defense will get better when those two starters are healthier. Backup Marcus Spears has also missed time with a knee injury.

Alex (Utah): Did Jameel McClain played better last week than Josh Bynes have in the season?

Jamison Hensley (ESPN): McClain was impressive considering he hadn't played in 10 months. He didn't make any impact plays but he is better than Bynes at this point.

Boh (Annapolis, MD): In your opinion who is the better No. 2 wide receiver, Jacoby Jones or Marlon Brown?

Jamison Hensley (ESPN): Jacoby Jones has impressed me with the way he's run routes. Much better than last year. I also like Brown's potential. That's why I advocated going three-wide and spreading out defenses. So, I thought the Ravens had the right strategy going against the Steelers. Use Torrey Smith, Jacoby Jones and Marlon Brown. They're among your best 11 players, so why don't use them at the same time?

Alex (Utah): What's your Ravens Mount Rushmore as of today?

Jamison Hensley (ESPN): Ray Lewis, Jonathan Ogden, Ed Reed and Art Modell.
OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- The Baltimore Ravens could address depth at running back during their bye week.

While starting running back Ray Rice says he has fully recovered from a hip injury, the same cannot be said about backup Bernard Pierce. He is dealing with a hamstring injury and didn't practice Wednesday, the last workout before the players receive four days off.

The Ravens didn't have Pierce toward the end of Sunday's game in Pittsburgh, which is why fullback Vonta Leach spelled Rice at times. Free agent Beanie Wells had a tryout with the Ravens on Tuesday, but the team isn't expected to sign him. Former Cincinnati Bengals running back Bernard Scott worked out for the Ravens last week.

The Ravens have a roster spot open after trading offensive tackle Bryant McKinnie to the Miami Dolphins.

"We're still working ourselves through that," coach John Harbaugh said. "It could be a practice-squad promotion. It could be somebody off a practice-squad roster or somebody who's available right now as a free agent."

Pierce has shown some flashes during his two seasons with the Ravens, but he tends to get banged-up. The Ravens are averaging 2.8 yards per rush, which is last in the NFL.

Here are some other injury updates:
  • Inside linebacker Josh Bynes, who missed his first game with a finger infection, said he expects to return for the Nov. 3 game at the Cleveland Browns. "I don't if 'expected' is the right word," Harbaugh said. "I guess I probably feel that way, but I don't want to speak, because you never know with an infection. But there's a good chance that he would be [ready]."
  • Left guard Kelechi Osemele confirmed he will have surgery on his back this offseason. He didn't practice Wednesday and said the back acts up on him "off and on" throughout the year. "They feel like I'm the best chance to win games at my position. So, I'm going to deal with it," Osemele said. "How much affected? The back is a big thing. It's connected to your legs and everything from that point down. It's affected my power. I'm an offensive lineman. I need to have strong legs. Obviously, it's affecting me."

Upon Further Review: Ravens Week 7

October, 21, 2013
10/21/13
2:00
PM ET
A review of four hot issues from the Baltimore Ravens' 19-16 loss at the Pittsburgh Steelers:

[+] EnlargeRay Rice
Charles LeClaire/USA TODAY SportsThe Steelers' defense kept Ravens RB Ray Rice from gaining any long yardage, especially after contact.
Falling behind: The Ravens have been playing catch-up in nearly every game this season. Sunday's game in Pittsburgh marked the fifth time in the last six weeks that the Ravens' opposition has scored first. This is significant because the Ravens are 41-8 under coach John Harbaugh when scoring first. Baltimore hasn't been ahead at the end of the first quarter since the season opener in Denver. Over the past six weeks, the Ravens have held a first-half lead for 18 minutes, 47 seconds out of 180 minutes (which is about 10 percent of the time). Baltimore has scored 53 points in the first half this season, an average of 7.5 points.

Nothing after contact: The Ravens' ground game remained grounded in Pittsburgh primarily because Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce couldn't generate yards after being hit. They combined to rush for a season-low 11 yards after contact, according to ESPN Stats & Information. This number is even more disappointing when you factor in the Steelers have allowed 305 yards after contact this season, the seventh-most in the NFL. Rice and Pierce combined for 58 yards on 21 carries, a 2.7-yard average. The Ravens' backs have been held under 3.2 yards per carry in every game this season.

Getting run over: Two weeks ago, the Ravens had the NFL's No. 6 run defense, giving up 89.8 yards on the ground. But Baltimore hasn't looked the same since, failing to contain a couple of rookie running backs. Green Bay's Eddie Lacy ran for 120 yards and Pittsburgh's Le'Veon Bell rushed for 93 yards, which are career highs for both second-round picks. The Steelers, who had the second-worst run game in the NFL, gained a season-high 141 yards rushing, ending a franchise-record streak of 11 straight games with fewer than 100 yards rushing. This explains why the Ravens are losing the time of possession battle the past two weeks.

Penalty problem: The Ravens were flagged nine times, which is their second-highest total in a game this season. There were plenty of mental mistakes from a delay of game penalty after a timeout, jumping offsides on a field goal attempt and going offsides on an onside kick. And there were times when the Ravens needed more discipline, which was the case when Elvis Dumervil pushed quarterback Ben Roethlisberger after he had thrown a pass. Three of Baltimore's penalties allowed the Steelers to convert third downs. For the season, the Ravens have been penalized 49 times, which is the 10th-most in the league.
The Baltimore Ravens didn't resemble defending Super Bowl champions in a 23-20 loss to the Buffalo Bills on Sunday.

Joe Flacco threw five interceptions. The Ravens totaled 24 yards rushing. And their defense gave up 203 yards on the ground.

The Ravens took to social media to let fans know how disappointed they were in their performance:
OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- Baltimore Ravens coach John Harbaugh isn't sure whether running back Ray Rice will return to play Sunday. What Harbaugh does know is he's going to get more production out of his plodding running game.

Winners of two straight, the Ravens (2-1) are sitting atop the AFC North with the Cincinnati Bengals and are coming off a convincing 30-9 win over the Houston Texans. But the biggest improvement Harbaugh wants to see out of his team is opening running lanes and breaking long runs.

The Ravens are averaging 77.3 yards rushing, which ranks 25th in the NFL. Baltimore is gaining 2.6 yards per carry, and only the Jacksonville Jaguars (2.4) are averaging fewer.

[+] EnlargeBernard Pierce
Evan Habeeb/USA TODAY SportsRavens coach John Harbaugh said he's confident that his running backs, including Bernard Pierce, will be more productive as the season progresses.
"Our run game is not where it needs to be," Harbaugh said. "I think one thing you've seen is that philosophically we're going to stick with it. It's something that we think is important. We're going to be able to run the ball here. It's just part of our DNA. It's part of who we are as a football team."

The Ravens return four starters from an offensive line that helped the team average 134.8 yards rushing in the playoffs. Through three weeks this year, the Ravens are averaging 44 percent less.

Without Rice on Sunday, Bernard Pierce and Shaun Draughn were held to no gain or were stopped behind the line nine times on 27 carries. Like Harbaugh said, it's not for a lack of trying. Their 88 rushing attempts rank 10th in the NFL.

"We have the people to do it," Harbaugh said. "We have some big, strong, tough offensive linemen. We have some really good backs. And we have a fullback who is the best blocking fullback in the league. So, the run game is something that has to happen for us."

Based on the numbers, the Ravens will have their best chance of getting the run game on track this Sunday. The Buffalo Bills have allowed 155 yards rushing per game, which is second worst in the league. The New York Jets' Bilal Powell, a fourth-round pick in 2011, ran for 149 yards against the Bills on Sunday.

Harbaugh said the Ravens' problem is more complicated than just knocking defensive linemen off the ball. He characterized the issue as getting everyone working more in sync.

"We do feel like we understand it and we're working on it," Harbaugh said. "There's no doubt in our mind that it can be corrected. We're not getting the production from the run game that we think we should. But we also feel like we're on our way to getting that done. We just have to go out there and do it."

Injuries have hit the Ravens' backfield. Rice missed his first game since 2008 with a hip injury, and Draughn has a high ankle sprain. Harbaugh said the team is in a "wait and see" mode as to whether Baltimore needs to add another running back this week, but it seemed like the Ravens were leaning against that.

Asked if there is a good chance that Rice will play Sunday, Harbaugh said, "I don't know about the good or the great or the whatever. He was close this week, to a degree. So was Chris [Canty, defensive lineman]. Those muscle things, you never know for sure. They were in the ballpark this week. We think that really puts them in the ballpark coming up."

Upon Further Review: Ravens Week 3

September, 23, 2013
9/23/13
12:30
PM ET
An examination of four hot issues from the Baltimore Ravens' 30-9 win over the Houston Texans:

Defensive streak: The Ravens haven't allowed a touchdown since surrendering seven in the season opener in Denver. It's the first time the Ravens have stopped teams from reaching the end zone in back-to-back games since the start of the 2010 season. Baltimore has not allowed a touchdown in 25 straight drives, a span of 124 minutes, 30 seconds. And while holding teams without a touchdown, the Ravens' defense has scored itself on linebacker Daryl Smith's interception return. Equally as impressive is the fact the Texans had scored touchdowns on all seven of their red zone trips entering Sunday's game. But Baltimore held Houston to field goals on both of its drives inside the 20-yard line.

[+] EnlargeTorrey Smith
Doug Kapustin/MCT via Getty ImagesTorrey Smith played a big role Sunday in the success of Baltimore's offense.
Second-half charge: Sluggish start, effective finish. That has been the storyline for the Ravens' work-in-progress offense the past two weeks. In the first half against the Browns and Texans, Baltimore converted only three of 14 third downs (21.4 percent). In the second half, the Ravens have converted 13 of their 18 third-down chances (72.2 percent). It wasn't the same formula. Against the Browns, the Ravens moved the chains when Joe Flacco started to get wide receivers Marlon Brown and Brandon Stokley more involved. Against the Texans, Baltimore picked up first downs by throwing more to Torrey Smith. The Ravens defense has been just as strong on third downs. The Texans were 1-for-4 on third downs in the second half Sunday.

Running on empty: The Ravens were held to less than 3 yards per carry for a third straight game. Flacco mentioned after the game that the Ravens believed they could run the ball against the Texans, but they averaged 2.4 yards per carry. The Ravens didn't have Ray Rice (hip), although they weren't effective when he played the first two games. Backup Bernard Pierce had little running room and didn't break many tackles. Take away his 25-yard run and Pierce managed 40 yards on his other 23 carries, a 1.7-yard average. The Ravens are averaging 2.6 yards per carry this season. Only the Jacksonville Jaguars (2.4 yards per carry) have been worse.

Offense-minded defense: Smith's 37-yard interception return was the first pick-six of his 10-year career and the 42nd in Ravens history. The Ravens' 30 touchdowns off interception returns since 2003 are the most in the NFL and two more than anyone else in the league (the Chicago Bears and Green Bay Packers each have 28). Since 1996, the Ravens' defense has recorded 53 touchdowns, scoring at least one in each of the franchise's 18 years of existence. Baltimore is 42-7 (.857) when scoring a defensive touchdown.

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