Many of the Ravens' six losses this season have been laid at the feet of a big-play prone defense, but after another too-little, too-late comeback by the Ravens Monday against the Arizona Cardinals, attention turned to the team's erratic offense.
Offensive coordinator Marc Trestman's unit has done some of its best work while chasing down opponents late in games. Monday's game-sealing drive, which quarterback Joe Flacco said was "out of control" and proved too complex, was the exception.
The offense has had the ball with a chance to extend a lead, win or tie late in the fourth quarter in every game, and the Ravens are 1-6. Often, they've been left to lament chances missed earlier, in part to deflect the ones they don't capitalize on late.
The 15th-ranked offense is as middle-of-the-pack as that ranking suggests, but in answering for their performance and providing an unprompted explanation of the late-game struggles Thursday, Trestman pointed to the little details over one overarching problem for the unit's inconsistency.
"I think that it's tough, and it's not tough [to explain]," Trestman said. "Some of it is hurting ourselves. We've had opportunities to make plays and haven't made them. We've had penalties at certain times, and we can clean that up. … We've had good drives, productive drives, but on the other side of it, we've had a lot of three-and-outs. We have not been consistent offensively."
Because of that, some of their overall rankings are more flattering than they appear. With 356.1 yards per game, the Ravens rank 15th in the NFL, but their per-play ratios suggest much of it is volume-based.
At 5.3 yards per play run, they rank 23rd in the league in that category. And with 30.78 yards per drive, according to Football Outsiders, the Ravens are 20th in the NFL and nearly nine yards per series behind the league-leading Cardinals. They haven't gotten a first down on 24 percent of their drives.
"We've had a lot of long drives, a lot of good drives, but we haven't been consistent in the continuity of our drives and getting the number of plays we need to run, and find more explosive plays and get more good plays out of our offense," Trestman said. "That's what we're working on trying to get done."
The core components, according to Trestman, are in place. He says Flacco has done a "magnificent job" working with himself and new quarterbacks coach Marty Mornhinweg, and said the relationship was "ascending." Flacco's 1,857 yards are seventh-most in the NFL, but his 6.27 yards per pass attempt is third-worst among NFL qualifiers.
And despite a heavy reliance on running back Justin Forsett in the running game and Steve Smith Sr. in the passing game — the latter has more receiving yards (588) than the rest of the wide receivers combined (546) — the young skill position players are going to step up and "see tremendous results and productivity from our offense that's going to help our team dramatically," Trestman said.
He believes above all else, though, that the lack of big downfield plays is what's keeping them from moving the ball and scoring more consistently.
"The games that we've had good success yardage-wise and scoring-wise, those explosive plays show up," Trestman said. "It's evident to all of us that when we don't get that, we don't get the production, because we're not in the red zone as much as we need."
As for the late-game issues, Trestman opened his news conference by taking the blame for substituting and changing the Ravens' personnel group on the play before the interception intended for tight end Crockett Gillmore. He said it was too complicated to do at that time, and cost them.
Add in the communication problems — the Ravens had headset issues — and what Flacco seemed to indicate is a large menu of plays, and as the quarterback said, the Ravens "were fortunate to get down" inside the 5-yard line to begin with.
"It's tough," Flacco said. "When you have a huge play sheet and you're selecting from a million plays, it's tough to call a game in two-minute situations when you're not getting anything. … You've got to make a call on the fly, and like I said, we were able to overcome it for 70 yards. Just couldn't get the last little bit."
But that drive, although the formations proved different, was eerily similar to the end of the Week 1 loss to the Denver Broncos. Then, a lob to Smith at the front left pylon fell incomplete before Gillmore was targeted on a jump ball up the seam, but the pass was intercepted.
The Ravens certainly have developed things they like to do in certain situations, and Trestman and Flacco go to them often.
Seven of 14 game- or half-opening drives have been passes to fullback Kyle Juszczyk. A trusted third-down toss to Forsett saw him gain 20 yards in Week 1, go for two yards the other way in Week 2, then was stuffed for a loss of two yards in Week 3.
It's a balance between getting his proven stars their touches and spreading the ball around, one that Trestman said isn't difficult.
"Obviously, you lean on those guys that are the guys that have done it and been there, but you also have to force defenses to defend an entire field both vertically and horizontally," he said. "When you're locked into one or two guys, I think that hurts the overall offense. We have to keep pushing the younger guys to keep getting better and make the best of their opportunities when they get a chance."