Mike Preston: Ravens need to gear up rushing attack for run into postseason

Ravens coach John Harbaugh should have a private meeting with his offensive line and running backs this week to tell them about the team’s secret to success in the postseason.

If the Ravens are to become serious contenders in the playoffs, they have to be able to run the ball because the top contenders — the New England Patriots, Pittsburgh Steelers, Kansas City Chiefs and Jacksonville Jaguars — seem to have trouble defending opposing ground games.

And if the Ravens need a tuneup in preparation, they should start Sunday against the Cincinnati Bengals, who are No. 31 against the run allowing 128.5 yards per game.

While the NFL has gone pass-happy, the old-school philosophy of running the ball and playing solid on both defense and special teams might be enough to get the Ravens deep into the postseason.

“I don’t think we did a great job,” Harbaugh said of the team’s running performance against the Indianapolis Colts on Saturday, when the Ravens carried the ball 32 times for 103 yards. “We didn’t probably block and execute as well as we have in other games. We just have to play better. You know, just execute the running game better — run better, block better, all the things that go into it.

“I think we could bust out and run for a bunch of yards or we could struggle,” Harbaugh said of the rushing inconsistency throughout the year. “It just depends on how you play and how the defense defends you. We’ll do everything we can to run the ball next week, and it’s not going to be easy because that’s a good front. They’ve got a very good defensive line, one of the best in the league, so we’re going to have to be at our best.”

The Ravens (9-6) aren’t looking for any major miracles here. They’ve been inconsistent in almost every phase of the game throughout the 2017 season. Quarterback Joe Flacco has been up and down, and the Ravens lack a deep vertical game.

The defense has been good but not overwhelming. After it allowed Indianapolis’ Jacoby Brissett to throw for 215 yards Saturday and rip apart the middle of the secondary, it’s safe to conclude that New England’s Tom Brady and Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger would do the same.

And it’s also safe to be concerned about all those talented weapons the Chiefs, Patriots, Steelers and even Jaguars have on offense. The Ravens don’t want to engage in a shootout.

So why not pull the plug on these teams? The best way to complement the Ravens defense is to grind it out offensively and use as much clock as possible.

Kansas City is ranked No. 23 in rushing defense, allowing 118.7 yards per game, while New England is No. 26 (119.7). Both Jacksonville and Pittsburgh have top-five defenses overall, but the Jaguars are No. 21 against the run (116.3) and Pittsburgh is No. 10 (106.1). Even though the Steelers are in the top third of the league in that category, they might miss more tackles than any other team in the NFL.

Besides, it’s winter. Snow and rainy conditions work in favor of teams that can run. One of the major reasons Harbaugh brought in assistant Greg Roman during the offseason was to improve the running the game.

It has worked.

The Ravens aren’t the Dallas Cowboys of the 1990s, but they are ranked No. 15 in rushing, averaging 115.9 yards per game. They have a breakaway threat in Alex Collins, who can bounce outside, as well as a tough inside runner in Buck Allen, who can come in as a closer in the second half.

The Ravens don’t have any Pro Bowl performers on the offensive line, but Roman has devised a scheme to take advantage of combination and angle blocks. The Ravens have two decent run-blocking tackles in Ronnie Stanley and Austin Howard, and a steady center in Ryan Jensen.

This is not to say the Ravens should ignore the passing game or throwing downfield. But Flacco is at his best when the Ravens are using the play-action game, which also hides their major weakness of pass protecting in obvious situations.

Harbaugh has to beat the run theme into offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg. For the past couple of weeks, we’ve been hearing about “January Joe” because Flacco’s quarterback rating has been 72.5, 105, 88.9, 90.2 and 109.2 in the past five games.

Let’s get serious here.

Flacco couldn’t have played much worse than he did in the first half of the season. He is moving better now, cutting down on turnovers and getting the timing down with his receivers, but he has played against some of the league’s worst defenses in recent weeks: the Colts, Houston Texans, Detroit Lions and Cleveland Browns.

Regardless of Flacco’s improved play, the Ravens are still ranked No. 29 in passing offense, averaging 189.1 yards. Their top receiver, Mike Wallace, is really a No. 2 on most NFL teams, and most playoff teams have at least one good cornerback who can neutralize that receiver.

On defense, there has been a recurring them of big-name quarterbacks chewing the Ravens up in big games because they can’t cover or get enough pressure. It’s like an old TV rerun.

But the Ravens can change that. If they want different results, they need hitch a ride on the offensive line and running game, and see where it takes them in the postseason.

They might be able to stick around for a while.

mike.preston@baltsun.com

twitter.com/MikePrestonSun

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