Four weeks ago, the Ravens introduced their new up-tempo offense to a Monday Night television audience with Joe Flacco throwing a 52-yard pass to Torrey Smith on the first play from scrimmage against the Cincinnati Bengals.
It was an explosive beginning, yet one they've struggled to replicate early in games. The Ravens are 4-1 and in sole possession of first place in the AFC North, and the primary reason is their offense, which before a lackluster 9-6 victory over the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday, had posted more total yards and more passing yards through the first four games than any team in franchise history.
And the Ravens have done it despite continually getting off to slow starts. In the victory over the Chiefs, they scored just three points and gained 106 total yards in the first half against a team that seemed intent on giving the ball and field position away.
It didn't come back to bite them at Arrowhead Stadium, nor did a slow start cause any harm the previous week against the Cleveland Browns. The Ravens also beat the New England Patriots in Week 3 despite digging themselves a 13-point, first-quarter hole.
But with games against the flawed but talented Dallas Cowboys and the powerful Houston Texans lined up over the next two weeks, the Ravens are on the clock to figure out what has ailed them offensively early in games.
"There are a lot of reasons. When you watch the tape, there are a lot of reasons," said Ravens coach John Harbaugh, who declined to elaborate. "Getting first downs, that's the key."
This season, the Ravens have outscored their opposition 40-27 in the second quarter, 44-23 in the third and 26-19 in the fourth. But since jumping out to a 10-0 first-quarter lead on the Bengals in the season opener, they've been outscored by a modest 20-10 margin in the first quarter over their last four games.
Over the last three games, they've managed three total first-quarter points and that came Sunday on rookie Justin Tucker's 28-yard field goal after the Chiefs had fumbled the ball away at their own 42.
Since fullback Vonta Leach scored on a 5-yard touchdown run late in the first quarter of a Week 2 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles, the Ravens have had nine total first-quarter drives, one ending with a field goal, two ending on Flacco interceptions and six ending with punts.
Over the first quarters of the last four games, the Ravens have accumulated 49, 49, 17 and 53 yards of offense on 43 total plays. That works out to less than four yards per play. They've also lost the time of possession battle 38:17 to 21:43.
"We just weren't finishing drives," veteran center Matt Birk said. "We were not staying on the field long enough. We were getting off too quickly. When you run the no-huddle, you don't want to do that to your defense. It puts them in a bind."
Birk did admit that there is a feeling out process that teams go through early in games and that can lead to sluggish starts.
"You never know how the game is going to go. You have expectations and goals going in and have a feeling of the things you should do but you don't know how teams are going to play," Birk said. "You need to get a sense on how they are playing so you can anticipate certain things, whether they are going to bring pressure off the side, if they are going to play coverage or whatever they are going to do. We have a lot on offense and a lot of guys who do a great job of mixing it up."
The Ravens have not converted on third down in the opening quarter since Week 1 , and they are just 1-for-10 on third-down situations in the first quarter for the season.
Wide receiver Anquan Boldin, who was targeted 10 times Sunday and made four catches for 82 yards, acknowledged that the Ravens came out "flat" against the Chiefs. He felt the offense was anxious playing its first game in 10 days, and that showed in the number of drops and penalties.
Flacco, who never looked comfortable against Kansas City and completed just 13 of 27 passes for 187 yards and an interception while being sacked four times, attributed the offense's early struggles to the opposition.
"We just didn't really execute in the first half," Flacco said. "We had close contested plays and we didn't make them, and it kind of led to a bad down and distance where we didn't do a good job … We never really got in a rhythm in the first half. They contested catches, contested passes. They create that opportunity, and we weren't able to capitalize."
Harbaugh, meanwhile, was more focused on the overall improvements that his team needs to make.
"There are a lot of things that we're not pleased with," he said. "We're chasing our 'A' game every week. We want to have our 'A' stuff. It's like a pitcher. We want to have our best stuff every single week. We did not have our best stuff yesterday … So, we understood that, and we knew what the challenge was, and we found a way to win the game. I'm pleased because we didn't let frustration overcome us. We didn't lose our patience. We didn't get too anxious. We didn't make the kind of mistakes at the end that would have cost us that game. We made the plays at the end that allowed us to win the game."
Though the offense's malaise early in games may be frustrating to some, it would be nearly impossible to make a case that it has cost the Ravens anything but a few more anxious moments. It certainly added unnecessary late-game drama against the Chiefs and the Browns and contributed to the magnitude of the comeback over the Patriots. In their lone loss, the Ravens held a late lead against the Eagles only to watch Michael Vick drive his team down the field for the game-winning score.
Leach also looked at the bigger picture and summed up the feeling in the Ravens' locker room following Chiefs' victory when he warned, "We got to play better than that to beat our next opponent."
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