The excitement from the Ravens' winning their first game in over a month and getting back into the AFC North race was replaced Monday by the realization that their offense is regressing in the second half of the season and needs to be fixed in order to make a playoff run.
However, coach John Harbaugh doesn't view replacing struggling starting running back Ray Rice with Bernard Pierce as one of those potential fixes.
"What would that mean? One guy is the featured back by definition?" said Harbaugh during his Monday news conference when asked whether he has considered making Pierce the featured back. "Both those guys are going to get a large number of carries, and I think whichever guy is playing better should get more carries as we go forward. Both of those guys have to play for us to play well. You can't have one back carrying the ball 35 times nowadays, and we don't need to do that. We think we have two very good backs, but I don't think [replacing Rice as the starter] would be the solution."
The Ravens' 20-17 overtime victory over the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday was achieved largely in spite of the offense, which turned the ball over three times and gained a season-low 189 yards despite playing nearly 70 minutes of football.
The performance, which marked the fourth consecutive game the Ravens (4-5) have scored 20 points or fewer and the third straight in which they gained fewer than 300 yards, leaves the team with the NFL's 30th-ranked offense heading into Sunday's game against the Chicago Bears (5-4) at Soldier Field. Only the Jacksonville Jaguars and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who both entered the week winless, have averaged fewer yards per game.
A big reason for that is the Ravens' running game, which continues to sputter with very few signs of progress. The Ravens rushed for 85 yards on 30 carries against the Bengals, and 18 of those yards came on an end-around to backup quarterback Tyrod Taylor. Rice rushed for 30 yards on 18 carries while Pierce gained 31 yards on eight attempts.
The Ravens now rank 30th in the NFL In rushing yards per game (73.1) and last in yards per carry (2.8).
"We're not as successful as we need to be. We're not even close," Harbaugh said. "We've talked about the reasons for it. It's not one thing. If it was one thing, you'd need to be able to fix it or you'd have to throw your hands up and say, 'It's something you can't fix because you don't have the answer.' Neither one of those is true. The answers are there and it's just not the run game because the passing game ties into it as well."
Asked specifically about Rice, who is averaging just 2.5 yards per carry, Harbaugh said, "You've got to look at the numbers, and definitely, it's not the same. There's no doubt about that. So, what is it? It's injury or it's not as much room to run or it's both. His health has been a factor, no doubt. He's working hard to become healthier. That's important. That's a hip flexor. That's a muscle injury, and it's hard to predict exactly what impact that has, but you've got to assume it's had an impact."
The Ravens' punchless running game was only one of several offensive issues against the Bengals. Quarterback Joe Flacco was just 20-for-36 for 140 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions. He also lost a fumble and was sacked five times. The Ravens also went 3-of-16 on third-down conversions.
The good news for Harbaugh is that the Ravens won despite all their shortcomings, and significantly improved their playoff positioning in the process. They are now just 1 1/2 games behind the first-place Bengals with a second matchup between the two teams set for Dec.29, the final weekend of the season.
Seeking to become the 10th team since 1990 to make the playoffs despite starting 3-5, the Ravens are one game behind the New York Jets for the sixth and final playoff spot. Of the four teams that were between the Ravens and Jets (5-5) entering last week, two lost (San Diego Chargers and Tennessee Titans), one of them was on bye (Cleveland Browns) and the other (Miami Dolphins) played on Monday night.
But Flacco was among the players who acknowledged that the Ravens are going to have to play much better to continue to move up the standings.
"We have to do a lot of things better in order to be successful," said Flacco, who is fifth in the league with 11 interceptions, surpassing last year's total of 10. "We're not playing great right now, but we're doing the best we can to win football games."
Of their two touchdowns Sunday, one was preceded by a 48-yard pass-interference penalty on safety Reggie Nelson and the other was set up by James Ihedigbo's 37-yard interception return, which, coupled with a Bengals' penalty, gave the Ravens the ball at the Cincinnati 11.
Following Flacco's 7-yard touchdown pass to Torrey Smith, the Ravens' final eight possessions of regulation included six punts, an interception and a fumble by Flacco. The Ravens gained just 70 net yards and eight first downs on those eight drives.
"We got in a situation starting in the end of the second quarter through the third quarter where we had five possessions where we were either at midfield or we got ourselves to midfield," Harbaugh said. "That's something we need to take advantage of. If we can punch ourselves into field-goal range there, we'd have the chance to pretty much salt that game away in the third quarter. That was missed opportunities for sure. That lull there, we've got to break that."
The latest tepid offensive performance came despite Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell introducing a few new wrinkles to the team's attack. Nelson's pass interference came on a flea-flicker, which sprung Jacoby Jones wide open down the field.
Not only did the Ravens use Taylor on the end-around, they inserted nose tackle Haloti Ngata as an extra blocker on consecutive plays when they drove inside the Bengals' 5-yard line in the first quarter.
"We've got to find a way to create some plays, obviously, and you try and use your guys," Harbaugh said. "We've got some guys with some specific talents that we're going to try and find ways to get them out on the field and do that. We've done that in the past here and it's important for us to do that."
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