For about 15 seconds last Sunday night, everything seemingly clicked.
On the Ravens' first offensive play from scrimmage, running back Ray Rice took a handoff from Joe Flacco, found space on the left side behind tackle Bryant McKinnie and guard Ben Grubbs, and sprinted past the Pittsburgh Steelers' defense for what appeared to be a 76-yard touchdown run.
Heinz Field went silent until a yellow flag was spotted near the Ravens' 34-yard line. Rookie wide receiver Torrey Smith was ruled to have held William Gay — a questionable call at best — and the Ravens remained in search of that elusive big play to jump-start their running game.
"We are where we are," Rice said. "The run game, I think, is still effective. [Teams] have to go into the game respecting it. Regardless of what you say, you put on the film last week, you take away that holding penalty, your stats skyrocket."
Instead, the Ravens rushed for 67 yards on 27 carries in their 23-20 victory over the Steelers. It was the third time in the past five games in which the Ravens have averaged under 3 yards per carry, and the fourth time in five games in which Rice, one of the game's most dangerous backs, has been held to under 70 rushing yards.
Getting him going will be a focus Sunday against the Seattle Seahawks and their 4-3 defense, an alignment that has given the Ravens some trouble in the past.
"We got some simple things we have to get cleaned up," Ravens offensive coordinator Cam Cameron said. "It's mostly technique stuff. It's not the line, it's not the backs, it's not the tight end. It's just a combination of things that we have to continue to get better at. A lot of times, the defense and your plan have a lot to do with that, but at the same time, we know there are things we have to get taken care of no matter who we're playing against. We got good backs. Especially as the weather turns and we're heading down the stretch here, we need to pick our running game up a little bit."
After a 2010 season in which they were uncharacteristically mediocre running the football, the Ravens went out and signed All-Pro fullback Vonta Leach to a three-year, $11 million deal. They reshuffled their offensive line, adding mammoth left tackle Bryant McKinnie and moving Michael Oher and Marshal Yanda back to their more natural positions at right tackle and right guard, respectively.
The group has been good at times, but the Ravens' running game remains a work in progress. Through eight games, the Ravens are ranked 23rd in the NFL with 816 rushing yards. They are 22nd in rushing yards per game (102) and tied for 25th in yards per carry (3.9).
Rice, who made the Pro Bowl in 2009, is 15th in the NFL in rushing yards (532) and 35th in yards per carry (4.0).
"I'm not even worried about where we're at. I think we're right where we need to be with the run game," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "The yards per carry, it's a little bit down. But it could easily be higher. We're a formidable running team and we're going to continue to get better. I really believe that. It's been important to our opponents to stop the run and to commit resources to it. I think we need to get it better, but there's no doubt in my mind that we will."
The Ravens are on pace to finish with 1,632 rushing yards, down from the 1,831 they put up last year. In 2010, they averaged 114.4 rushing yards per game, 12.4 more than their current average. Last year's team also had 39 runs of 10 yards or more while the Ravens currently have 18 such runs at the season's midpoint.
However, the comparisons with last year aren't entirely fair either because both the game plan and several game situations — 21 points down against the Arizona Cardinals and late-game deficits to the Tennessee Titans, Jacksonville Jaguars and Steelers — have demanded that Flacco go to the air.
Flacco has thrown the ball 309 times through eight games, 46 more attempts than he had at last season's midpoint. That has led to fewer carries for Rice and his primary backup, Ricky Williams. Rice has 133 carries, compared with 153 at this point last year. Williams has 51 rushes, nine fewer than Rice's main backup, Willis McGahee, had through eight contests last season.
"We don't have to force the run game," Rice said. "One thing about it now, I told Cam, I told the guys, I am not going to be a guy that begs for the ball. I want it to be a situation where he is calling the game and he is comfortable. Anytime you try to force any situation, bad things happen."
There have been several other factors that players have cited for the decrease in rushing production. Yanda said opposing teams seem focused on shutting down the "outside zones," forcing Rice and Williams back inside, and taking away some of the potential for big runs. Oher and Leach also said that more and more, the team is seeing eight-man fronts with safeties in the box focused on stopping Rice.
"You have to look at what's happening," Rice said. "I have been seeing a lot of different fronts, a lot of safeties down, a lot of — especially against the 3-4 teams — double coverage at times. If I was playing against myself, I would probably do the same thing."
The Ravens have also played four of their eight games against teams with top-11 run defenses — two against Pittsburgh and one each against the Houston Texans and Jaguars — and they have done it for all but two games without Grubbs who had been sidelined with a toe injury. Grubbs and Yanda are considered the team's best two run blockers.
But with all that said, the Ravens believe they have proved they can run the ball when they need to, and against top competition. It was Rice's 36-yard run on the Ravens' first offensive play that set the tone for the team's 170-yard rushing afternoon in the 35-7 blowout over the Steelers in Week 1.
The Ravens salted away their 34-17 victory over the New York Jets with 10 consecutive running plays spanning the third and fourth quarters. Rice eclipsed the 100-yard plateau against the Texans, then scored three rushing touchdowns against the Cardinals two weeks later.
"Obviously, from a fullback's perspective, we always look forward to getting better," Leach said. "I think our running game is on the right track. I wish we had more yards, of course. I want to run the ball more because I'm the fullback, but I'll take the wins instead. Whatever we have to do to get the win, that's what we're going to do. But it is getting better. There is evidence it's getting better. We may not have all the stats that other teams have, but we're running the ball when we need to."
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