By Jeff Zrebiec
The Baltimore Sun
11:34 PM EDT, September 14, 2013
The Ravens will commemorate their Super Bowl XLVII victory one final time before Sunday's game against the Cleveland Browns with a video tribute and the unveiling of world champion banners.
Whether they pay homage to last year's team by getting back to the same offensive script from their stunning postseason run is not as clear.
The offseason trade of wide receiver Anquan Boldin and injuries to tight end Dennis Pitta and wide receiver Jacoby Jones has resuscitated a familiar debate surrounding the team: should the Ravens, at least until quarterback Joe Flacco gains more chemistry with his new-look receiving corps, go back to a familiar offensive formula of Pro Bowl running back Ray Rice or Bernard Pierce repeatedly following Pro Bowl fullback Vonta Leach through holes?
Ravens coach John Harbaugh and his players spent the days leading up to the game praising the front seven of the Browns and preaching the need for more balance on offense. But every comment included the declaration that the Ravens need to run the ball far better than they did last week and during the preseason to succeed.
"I don't think anybody would have any question that we're committed to making certain that we can run the ball," Ravens offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell said. "We certainly need to run it and run it better."
The Ravens' problems in their season-opening 49-27 loss to the Denver Broncos were compounded by a failure to run the football, which prevented them from sustaining drives and keeping Denver quarterback Peyton Manning off the field.
They rushed for 58 yards on 21 attempts, a paltry 2.8 yards per carry, and fifteen of those 21 rushes — 12 by Rice and nine by Pierce — went for 3 yards or less. Just seven teams ran the ball less than the Ravens in Week 1 and only four teams had fewer rushing yards.
"We're definitely not there in terms of our ability to run the ball. We have to get better. But you do whatever you need to do to win the game," Harbaugh said. "I don't anticipate many games where we throw the ball over 60 times. Percentage-wise, we'll probably run the ball more, most of the time, than we did."
'We just got to have a balance'
The 62-21 run-pass ratio can partly be attributed to the Broncos building a 35-17 lead just past the midpoint of the third quarter. Flacco, however, did drop back to pass on 15 of the Ravens' first 21 offensive plays, the type of start that in the past drove herds of Ravens' fans to radio shows and message boards to call for former offensive coordinator Cam Cameron's job.
Cameron, of course, was fired last December and replaced by Caldwell, a move that many credited as the impetus behind the offense's postseason surge. Caldwell made a few changes to the Ravens' offense after taking over, getting Flacco to roll out of the pocket more, encouraging him to use the middle of the field and using the run better to set up the pass.
But that team had the precise route running, sure hands and toughness of Boldin and Pitta, and the outside speed of Jones. With Jones expected to miss at least a month with a sprained knee, the current Ravens are expected to start undrafted free agent wide receiver Marlon Brown opposite Torrey Smith, and depend heavily Sunday on veterans Brandon Stokley and Dallas Clark, who joined the team a little more than three weeks ago.
The good news for the Ravens is that they still have Rice and Pierce, who combined for 1,675 yards and 10 touchdowns on the ground last year, and a three-time Pro Bowl fullback in front of them. Pierce is questionable for Sunday's game with a thigh injury.
"We just got to have a balance," Leach said. "When we do run the ball, on first and second down, we have to get positive yardage. If we get behind the eight-ball, we're obviously going to have to throw it. You got to be stubborn, but there also has to be a balance with the weapons we have on the offensive side of the ball. I think we're going to get everything figured out and go from there."
The Ravens morphed into more of a passing offense last season with Rice getting 257 carries, his lowest total since his first season as the team's starter in 2009, and 34 fewer than he had the previous season. In 13 games with Cameron calling the plays, Rice averaged just under 17 carries per game. Cameron's tendency to not get Rice the ball enough was believed to be one of the main reasons for his dismissal.
In six of the seven games with Caldwell at the helm of the offense, not counting the regular-season finale in which most starters were out after the first drive, Rice averaged 20 rushing attempts per game. Even during the playoffs, when Flacco put together a historic postseason with 11 touchdowns and no interceptions, Rice got plenty of opportunities on the ground, averaging 21 carries per game, while Pierce had just under 10 attempts per contest.
The Ravens averaged 3.9 yards per carry during the postseason, but more than anything, their running game kept defenses honest and opened up things down the field for Flacco. That's what the Ravens are hoping to get back to this season, not a run-oriented or pass-oriented offense, just a balanced one.
"We'd like to run to balance it out and kind of wear down opponents' pass rushers," Ravens left tackle Bryant McKinnie said. "It sets up the play-action pass as well."
'It's a pride thing for offensive linemen'
That the Ravens were bottled up on the ground last week in Denver wasn't overly concerning on its own because the Broncos had one of the best run defenses in the league last year. However, the Ravens also struggled all preseason to run the football, averaging just 3 yards per carry. Rice and Pierce were both below that.
"We do have to run the ball better," Rice said. "That's something that I know we can get corrected, with the guys we have in front of us, our offensive line, having Marshal [Yanda], having [Kelechi Osemele], [and] having the jell that we have. Running the football is something that is a man-on-man thing. Those guys will get it corrected. It's a hat on a hat, different things that we work on, and we'll get it corrected. Running the ball is something we've always been able to do around here, and I don't see that stopping right now."
Osemele, the second-year left guard, said the offensive linemen have spent significant time this week in meetings and in individual work, focusing on improving their run blocking.
"That's been the name of the game since it started, run the ball," Osemele said. "We have to do that and we have to take pride in opening up holes for Ray and allowing Joe to do what he does on the back end of it when he passes the ball: be two dimensional and three dimensional even."
It certainly won't be an easy task this week. In their 23-10 loss to the Miami Dolphins last week, the Browns held the opposition to 20 rushing yards on 23 attempts, tied for the second-fewest allowed in a game in franchise history.
However, they've historically struggled to stop Rice, who has averaged just over 92 yards per game in 10 career games against the Browns and just under 5 yards per carry.
Rice and the starting offensive linemen made it clear that their focus is on executing, no matter the play that is called. But the mere suggestion this week that the Ravens could feature the run more brought a smile to the faces of several Ravens.
"It's a pride thing for offensive linemen. You always want to run the ball well because you feel like you're doing your job," first-year starting center Gino Gradkowski said. "I think up front, we take pride in running the ball, so that's important for us."
Baltimore Sun reporter Aaron Wilson contributed to this article.
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