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Running it back: Rushing attack Ravens' biggest issue, Terrell Suggs and more

By Matt Vensel

The Baltimore Sun

7:00 AM EDT, September 30, 2013

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It seems fairly obvious that when John Harbaugh and the Ravens entered the locker room at halftime, trailing by 13 points to a young and talented but inferior Buffalo Bills team, the head coach had seen enough.

The Ravens had not found much running room in their first three games of the season, but the front sevens they faced in those games were among the league’s best. These were the Bills, though, a team that had been allowing 155 yards on the ground entering Sunday’s game, and they were whipping his offensive line up front. The Ravens had run the ball just seven times in the first half, but whenever Ray Rice or Bernard Pierce did get the ball, the were quickly met with resistance, combining to gain just 15 yards.

So, running out of time and patience, Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell pulled the plug.

The Ravens came out throwing in their preferred personnel grouping -- three wide receivers, a tight end, and a running back in the backfield to block or occasionally slip out for a pass. Quarterback Joe Flacco would throw 28 passes in the half and 50 in the game, and the Ravens went two full quarters without running the ball.

Their first carry of the second half came late in the fourth quarter on a draw play. Rice would get another carry on the following drive, the one that abruptly ended with Flacco’s fifth and final interception. When the game ended in a 23-20 loss, the Ravens had run the ball just nine times, the lowest number in a game in their history.

There were plenty of issues in the stunning loss, including Flacco’s interceptions, the Ravens' defense allowing 203 rushing yards and problems in pass protection. But the biggest issue was the non-existent running game, which has generated just 256 yards in four games this season with the ballcarriers averaging a woeful 2.6 yards per carry.

Their inability to run the ball early in the game was the main reason why the Ravens fell behind. Harbaugh and Caldwell tried to establish the ground game early to give their players an opportunity to gain forward momentum. But they routinely faced third down and 13, or 10, or eight, or seven, putting their quarterback in dangerous passing situations. Flacco was often harassed into inaccurate throws or sacked, and three of his interceptions came on third-down plays. The Ravens were just 3-for-16 on third down.

This is not meant to absolve Flacco. He admitted he did not see a defender on his first and fourth interceptions, though he might have been taking the blame for rookie Marlon Brown on the latter. And his third interception, the one he tossed up toward Torrey Smith in the end zone, was a needless risk that took three points off the board.

The quarterback will be scrutinized -- and Flacco is well aware that goes with the gig and that fat contract -- but the biggest concern by far is their turnstile offensive line.

Yes, they have been beaten for a bunch of sacks, but that will happen when you plan to throw it 45 times a game and everyone in the stadium knows it. The fact that the Ravens, no matter what blocking schemes have been installed, couldn’t even muster three yards per carry against the Bills is a critical issue, one with no resolution in sight.

You know it’s bad when the offensive coordinator doesn’t even throw in a token handoff to try to keep the defense a little honest. Even Cam Cameron would do that.

The Ravens may have washed their hands of the running game in the second half Sunday, but they know they have to find a way to get their offensive line and running backs going soon. Their lack of playmakers at wide receiver -- besides Smith, of course -- and at tight end prohibits from them being the caliber of high-flying offense we saw late last season. But they have the personnel up front, led by a trio of Pro Bowl players in Rice, Vonta Leach and Marshal Yanda, to get it done on the ground.

Harbaugh and company understandably ran out of patience during Sunday’s loss, but it’s going to be a long, long season if they don’t come up with some answers soon.

One thing that I learned

Terrell Suggs, the dominant player who was the NFL’s 2011 Defensive Player of the Year, is back. I actually learned this during training camp, when he showed up in great shape and was a madman on the practice fields. But he has been the team’s best defender this season and probably one of the league’s best defenders, too. Suggs had 17 tackles, a sack and three quarterback hits against the Bills, and this might not even have been his best game of the season. Suggs has four sacks, one in every game, and has been a force whether he is rushing the passer or smashing into backs. If he keeps it up, he could be a Defensive Player of the Year finalist at season’s end.

Handing out game balls

Another week, another game ball for Smith, who had five catches for 166 yards and a touchdown. He nearly had two, but he got tripped up after caching a bomb deep down the field. I’m going to give the defensive game ball to cornerback Jimmy Smith, who helped limit Bills wide receiver Stevie Johnson to one catch for negative yardage. He also appeared to jar the ball loose from Bills wide-out Robert Woods in the end zone, leading to an incompletion that kept hope alive for the Ravens.

This week’s head-scratcher

The chances of a comeback at that point were slim, but I didn’t agree with the late unnecessary roughness penalty that sealed the game. Bills quarterback EJ Manuel was intentionally taking his good old time to take a knee to kill precious seconds, so Suggs popped him on third down. It didn’t look like a late hit, but because Manuel’s helmet came off, the officials instinctively threw the yellow flag. It probably didn’t make a difference in the outcome, but don’t penalize Suggs for playing to the whistle.

They said it (or tweeted it)

“We’re two months into this thing. The team we’re going to be two months from now is not the team that we are right now. We’ll continue to work the way we have been working and we’ll make the changes we need to make, scheme-wise and things like that.” -- Harbaugh after the loss.

The stat that stands out

Five -- interceptions for Flacco, a new career high for a single game. Flacco has thrown seven picks in four games.

Three (thoughts) and out

1. It sounds pretty miserable that the Ravens allowed 203 rushing yards to C.J. Spiller and the Bills. After all, this is a defense that prides itself on stopping the run first and foremost. But if you take a closer look at the numbers, you’ll see the Ravens allowed a respectable 3.7 yards per carry -- not as good as the 3.4 yards per carry they averaged entering the game but still better than what 21 defenses had been allowing per carry entering Week 4. Of course, numbers don’t tell the whole story, about how the Bills were able move the chains and keep the Ravens defense on the field by consistently gaining positive yardage. This is something the Ravens will need to address, but only minor corrections will be needed.

2. Rookie free safety Matt Elam made six tackles in the loss, but his play in one second-quarter drive could lead to some teaching moments in the meeting room this week. On second down, Elam appeared to blow his assignment as a deep safety in a Cover Two zone, but Suggs drilled Manuel as he threw to force an overthrow. A play later, on third and 12, the Bills exploited Elam, who was mismatched against their tall tight end, Scott Chandler. On the next play, Elam had a shot at Bills running back Fred Jackson in the hole but whiffed on his diving tackle attempt, allowing Jackson to rush for a 16-yard touchdown. Elam’s talent is evident, but some growing pains are to be expected with the young, aggressive safety.

3. As my colleague Jeff Zrebiec pointed out on Twitter, the Ravens seemed to have the most chemistry when Torrey Smith, Marlon Brown and Deonte Thompson were the wide receivers in their 11 personnel. Thompson played the Jacoby Jones role, using his speed to stretch the field on one sideline while Smith worked the other. Marlon Brown used his big body inside as a slot receiver, something he did at times at Georgia. Of course, injuries to Thompson (concussion) and Brown (thigh) limited the trio’s usage, but it’s something to keep in mind for future games, especially if Jones is sidelined for a few more weeks.