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Wednesday, November 6, 2013
Ravens' run game on historically bad path

By Jamison Hensley

Baltimore Raves running back Ray Rice
The 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."

John Harbaugh
"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."