The Ravens' offense has fluctuated so wildly by quarter, never mind one game to the next, that it probably would be foolish to draw any concrete conclusions from one drive.
However, for a brief moment late Sunday afternoon following a come-from-behind 25-15 victory over the Cleveland Browns, Ravens coach John Harbaugh considered the thought that his team's nine-play, 81-yard march that culminated with Torrey Smith catching a 19-yard touchdown from Joe Flacco for the decisive points could be the spark that the offense needs going forward.
"That's a good point, that's a tremendous point," said Harbaugh when asked about the scoring drive, which ended 2 1/2 quarters of offensive ineptitude. "There are a lot of turning points in the season that will make or break your season. This will not be the last one. This is definitely a turning point. We turned a corner [Sunday]."
Harbaugh wasn't as emphatic with that point during his weekly Monday news conference with reporters. By then, he had time to review the game film and watch how the Ravens manhandled the Browns en route to building a 14-0 lead. He had time to digest the long and frustrating offensive drought that followed and how quarterback Joe Flacco broke from the struggles to lead the Ravens down the field for the go-ahead score.
"You could say the first two drives [Sunday] were the spark," he said. "It's not like we've gone the whole season and done nothing and all of a sudden, we got one drive. But it was the spark to win that game. If you look at the six victories, that's probably happened every one of those games. The reality is you have to do something like that in every game to find a way to win the game."
After a franchise-record start that saw the Ravens rank second in total offense (424 yards per game) and fourth in pass offense (310.3 yards per game) through four games, the team currently ranks 19th (346.0) and 15th (237.8) respectively in those categories.
However, for the most part, the offense has answered the call with games hanging in the balance and that, coupled by the defense's success against opponents in the red zone, is why the Ravens are 6-2 and in first place in the AFC North heading into Sunday's game against the Oakland Raiders (3-5) at M&T Bank Stadium.
In Week 3, Flacco led the Ravens on two scoring drives in the final 4:08 to beat the New England Patriots, 31-30. Ray Rice's 1-yard touchdown run late in the fourth quarter of Week 4 provided the winning points in a 31-29 victory against the Dallas Cowboys. As poorly as the offense played the following week versus lowly Kansas City, it put Justin Tucker in position to boot three field goals — two in the third quarter — in a 9-6 win.
Then came the fourth-quarter drive Sunday after the Browns had taken a 15-14 lead on Phil Dawson's fifth field goal. When the Ravens got the ball at their own 19, they hadn't gotten a first down in nearly 30 minutes. They had failed on seven straight third-down situations. Flacco, who had hit on his first 10 passes, had missed on nine of his next 11 attempts.
"It seems like if we get the first first down, we're in business. Then, we go five other drives where we don't get the first first down and you try to look for reasons for that," Harbaugh said. "We were third-and-10 too much. We didn't run the ball. We tried to come out and run the ball and they stopped us. They did what they did and they played better than us. Then we couldn't convert on third downs like we've done at times this year. Those are areas we have to get better at.
"I'm really pleased with the fact that we won and we're 6-2 in the first half of the season. By the same token, we're not the team that we need to be. We're not as good as we need to be. We need to be better in all those things. We need to be better on third down. We need to run the ball more consistently. We need to protect our quarterback more consistently. We need to throw and catch better. That's just on the offensive side."
In the week leading up to the Browns game, Harbaugh talked about how the offense has struggled to get out of ruts and when things have gone bad, it has been unable to reverse course. That happened in a Week 2 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles when Flacco went cold in the second half. That also happened again two weeks ago when an impressive game-opening drive gave way to a long afternoon of offensive struggles in a humbling 43-13 setback to the Houston Texans.
On Sunday after giving up a ton of yardage to Rice on the game's first two drives, the Browns put another player in the box and it stunted the Ravens for about 2 1/2 quarters.
"I specifically looked at that this morning. It's not about adjustments," Harbaugh said. "They made adjustments, we made adjustments. It was really more about making a block here and there. That's really what it boiled down to. For a stretch, they played a little better than us. It wasn't so much about an adjustment. We just didn't execute well enough to get a first down to get ourselves going. As soon as we did, as soon as we hit the play action pass to Anquan [Boldin], we were off and running again. I'd say probably in this game, it was more about execution than adjustments."
Harbaugh said that he was pleased with the tempo of the offense Sunday, but he acknowledged that there are several areas where he wants to see improvement. For one, the Ravens have struggled recently to find big plays in the passing game. Through the first four weeks, the Ravens led the NFL with 24 passing plays of 24 yards or more. They have only nine such plays in four weeks since.
Harbaugh also said that the team needs to do a better job utilizing some of its secondary playmakers behind Rice, Smith and Boldin. Deep threat Jacoby Jones has just four catches for 32 yards over his last four games after catching nine balls for 170 yards and a touchdown in his first four. He also hasn't played more than 22 snaps over the last four games after averaging 30 snaps in the four games that preceded the current stretch.
Tight end Dennis Pitta, one of Flacco's top targets, also had 18 catches for 188 yards and two touchdowns in his first three games and only 14 catches for 121 yards and no touchdowns over his past five. Harbaugh acknowledged that he'd "like to see a few more plays out of" Pitta and fellow tight end Ed Dickson.
"One thing I think we need to do is get a few more guys on the field," Harbaugh said. "Anquan and Torrey are doing a great job, but let's get Jacoby out there a little more. Let's get Tandon [Doss] out there a little more. We've got some playmakers that we can mix in a little more."
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