After a couple of poor first quarters earlier this season, the Ravens offense took to breaking the practice huddle by exclaiming, "start fast."
They could have been referring to first quarters or first downs and both would have been applicable. Success early in games and early on drives remains elusive for the Ravens and coach John Harbaugh and his staff has apparently tired of watching the same thing play out every week.
Harbaugh said Monday that changes are being made, particularly in the team's inept running game. He didn't elaborate, but it appears that the way the Ravens go about opening holes in front of running backs Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce could be altered ahead of Sunday's game against the Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field.
"We definitely are making changes," Harbaugh said. "We're just not going to sit there and stand pat with what we're doing. It might not be visible from the outside looking in but they are visible to the people we play against. Whether it's personnel changes or more likely scheme changes, not major things, just things that will give our guys a better chance to be on the same page."
Harbaugh's comments came a day after the Ravens were beaten, 19-17, by the Green Bay Packers to fall to 3-3 on the season and into a second-place tie in the AFC North. On Sunday, the Ravens were shut out for the first 40 minutes and unable to overcome some of the same issues that crop every week: slow starts, not enough production on first down and a failure to gain any traction in the running game.
The Ravens rushed for just 47 yards on 22 carries and their inability to rely on their running game was best exhibited by a failure to get in the end zone on four straight plays midway through the second quarter after they had a first-and-goal from the 4-yard line. Overall, 10 of the Ravens' 22 runs in the game went for zero to negative yards, continuing a trend that the Ravens can't seem to break.
"We've got too many situations where we don't have a [man] on a [man] and when you don't have a [man] on a [man], that's a problem," Harbaugh said. "That's just not acceptable. That's what we're looking at — the reasons for that and how we make sure it doesn't happen again."
The Ravens are averaging just 72.7 rushing yards per game, which ranks 27th in the NFL, and they are tied for last with the winless Jacksonville Jaguars with a 2.7 yards per carry average. The struggles have called into question whether the offensive linemen are grasping the changes made by new run game coordinator Juan Castillo, a proponent of zone blocking concepts.
"There are not that many things that are different," said Harbaugh who defended Castillo, calling the Ravens problems collective. "We've got to do things better, all of us. That's really the best answer I can give you. There are a lot of specifics within that but that's not for this format. But those are all things we're looking at, those are things we're studying very hard. … We're not stuck on any particular scheme or any particular technique or any particular way of doing something. We want to find the best way to do it. We're going to find our way into our run game."
The Ravens' offense, which ranks 22nd in the NFL in yards per game, has had its share of problems and many are tied to an inability to run the ball. They've tried to establish the run early in games but that has resulted in painfully slow starts. The Ravens have scored just 10 first-quarter points this season.
They've averaged just 52 yards of total offense in first quarters this season. Of their 17 first-quarter drives, the Ravens have gone three-and-out on nine of them. Over the last four games, they've started 12 drives in the first quarter, scored on just one of them — a Justin Tucker 42-yard field goal against the Miami Dolphins — and gotten just five first downs on those drives.
"We've got to start faster, obviously," right guard Marshal Yanda said. "It seems like every time we go in at half, we're not happy at all. So, we need to get going faster. … It's a dogfight out there. We have to fight tooth and nail every single play and we've got to fight every single snap. It's tough. Like I said, we're not where we want to be. We want to be putting more points on the board."
Against the Packers, the Ravens went 2-of-14 on third down, which again could be partly attributed to a lack of positive yardage on first and second down. On 10 of those third downs, the Ravens needed to get nine yards or more and the average distance required was just over 11 yards.
For the season, the Ravens are averaging just 4.55 yards on first down, better than only the Dolphins (4.52), Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4.22) and Tennessee Titans (4.06).
"In order to sustain drives, you need to get first downs on first and second down, and you need to get a couple chunks in there, and we're not doing that," quarterback Joe Flacco said. "We're getting one big chunk, and then we're putting ourselves back in third-down-and-long situations and not getting it."
Flacco acknowledged that he'd like to see the Ravens mix things up a little bit more on first and second down. In the Packers game, they ran the ball on 16 of the 27 first-down snaps, averaging under two yards per carry. During the first half, the Ravens gained just 10 yards on nine first-down runs and six of those yards came on a Flacco scramble.
Flacco summed up the offensive woes matter-of-factly in his post-game comments Sunday, but several Ravens, including Rice, were clearly frustrated.
"Nothing is simple but it can be fixed and we have the guys to do it," Harbaugh said. "I really feel strongly about our offensive line. I think we've got the men for the job, coaches and players. Frustration can be a great motivator. Let's be frustrated and let's go to work and see if we can get better."
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