There is only one answer for the Ravens' running game troubles

Bernard Pierce

Ravens running back Bernard Pierce is stopped shy of the goal line against the Green Bay Packers. (Kenneth K. Lam, MCT / October 13, 2013)

When Ravens head coach John Harbaugh was asked recently about fixing his offense, particularly the running game, he said there wasn't enough time to entertain such a discussion.

He was right.

There are too many problems and not enough answers. Harbaugh also didn't want to criticize anyone directly, but clearly there are signs to indict new running game coordinator Juan Castillo.

It would be unfair to put all the blame on Castillo, one of the best offensive line coaches in the NFL, but his finger prints are all over this mess, especially with an offensive line that a year ago won a Super Bowl and has three players in the prime of their careers.

"It's a collective [thing]," Harbaugh said. "It's everything — everything's got to come together better, and we just have to improve on that. There's a lot that goes into it. If you're looking for specifics, it would probably take a little longer than this format will allow, but there are many different things that we've looked at over the last few days to try to improve."

We'll see some of those changes Sunday when the Ravens play in Pittsburgh. They've got to go back to being old school, back to last year's postseason when the Ravens were balanced as far as run versus the pass.

What has happened to the running game since then?

The Ravens are still a zone blocking team but under Castillo's influence they played more of a read and react style. In theory, it is sound especially for a team which likes to run a lot of stretch plays.

But that finesse style doesn't fit the Ravens. The offensive line is a bunch of maulers. They want to attack and get on defensive players early instead of waiting and allowing them to penetrate. In layman's terms, the Ravens want to go back to being the hammer instead of the nail.

It's not just the offensive line. It's running backs Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce as well. They aren't wait and see runners. They see daylight and want to accelerate through the hole. So, maybe we will see less of those stupid stretch plays.

And hopefully, we'll see more combination blocking to move the line of scrimmage. Or how about more tosses, powers or wham blocks. If you want to slow penetration, then traps and counters are the answers.

Here's another suggestion: The Ravens have to change who is calling their pass protection assignments, or change the slide packages. They have allowed 22 sacks this season, a lot of those up the middle. Last week, Green Bay Packers inside linebacker A.J. Hawk had three. That should never happen.

Whenever a quarterback drops straight back, the first rule is to protect inside out and cut off the shortest routes to the quarterback. The Ravens have had a hole in the middle, and it's been that way all year.

It wasn't that way last year. Something changed.

"You've got to handle that against the Steelers," Harbaugh said. "We've seen their scheme a lot, we understand it, but we've got to execute against it, and that's challenging. [Pittsburgh defensive coordinator] Dick LeBeau is a great coach. He builds a great scheme, and we know the challenges of that scheme."

A little unpredictability would help the Ravens. They aren't dominant in any phase yet, so they should run when they are expected to pass and pass when they are expected to run. This team needs to find a rhythm before crunch time in the fourth quarter.

"We've just got to execute better and be better on first down so we're not constantly digging ourselves out of a hole," Flacco said. "I think when you look back at our last game, we had one second-and-5 and one second-and-4. Other than that, they were all seven, eight, nine – mostly even 11 and 12's. I think our average third-down-to-gain was 11 yards. When you do that to yourselves, you're not going to score points."

Points are the goal, but right now the Ravens need to just get some first downs. Their defense is different from a year ago when the Ravens had to be super aggressive on offense. Defensively, the Ravens can control games again. They can be dominant. They just need to be rested more.

So, the Ravens don't need to gamble on fourth-and-short situations all the time. They don't have to throw up a lot of jump balls and take gambles. Hopefully, the Ravens reflected on that this week.

And maybe now, because of the poor pass protection, they realize more short passes are needed. And now, because there is no Anquan Boldin or Dennis Pitta jumping out of the stadium to make catches, there is a need for a more controlled passing game.

It's understandable where Harbaugh wants to go with this offense. He is always full speed ahead. The Ravens may eventually get there especially with speedy receiver Jacoby Jones back in the lineup.

But after last week, there was frustration on the faces of Flacco and Rice, with Rice looking absolutely miserable. The bye is still another week away and that's when the Ravens will get a chance to self scout and make more significant changes.

But against Pittsburgh Sunday there might be only a few subtle changes. It might be hard to see, but it might be enough to start turning around the season.

The Ravens need to return to their roots. They have to go old school again.

mpreston@baltsun.com

twitter.com/MikePrestonSun

 
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