Ravens, searching for answers, look to their running game

Jolted into the chase position in the AFC North, the Ravens will take their underperforming offense to Houston on Monday night in search of a pick-me-up.

It could be the run game, which has been in a downward spiral for the past month. It could be the pass game, which remains largely under wraps. Or it could be a combination of both.

One thing seems certain: If the Ravens don't find their offensive identity in Reliant Stadium on Monday against the down and desperate Texans, there will be more incriminations in the offing.

After a numbing loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday, wide receiver Derrick Mason lamented a big-play offense that was held to 10 points and linebacker Terrell Suggs wondered how the Ravens could fail to identify a blitzing Troy Polamalu on the game's biggest play.

Valid points, both. This week the Ravens are looking for answers.

“The time is now, being that we want to accomplish certain things towards the end of the year and get this late-season push for the playoffs,” a solemn Ray Rice said Thursday about the power running game turned soft. “The time is now to get it corrected. That's our job. We've got to get that fixed and get it corrected. We're looking forward to getting it done this week.”

In a rare, revealing moment this week, coach John Harbaugh acknowledged offensive deficiencies in the run game (the Ravens' 3.6-yard average carry is more than a yard off last season's average), pass protection (11 sacks in the past three games), third-down plays (9 for 36 in the past three) and red-zone (7 touchdowns in the last 18 opportunities).

“Our yards-per-carry is probably the issue in the run game more than anything,” Harbaugh said. “We just have to run better, more effectively, and that's our goal, and it's important because it opens up everything. If you can run effectively, it opens up the pass game, helps you protect. It all ties together.”

Offensive coordinator Cam Cameron was unavailable to connect the dots Thursday because of game preparations. He is scheduled to address the media today. .

In the locker room, though, the Ravens spoke with one voice. Right tackle Marshal Yanda and Rice, the team's play-making running back, talked about blocking to the whistle.

Fullback Le'Ron McClain talked about getting more physical. And Mason talked about a sense of urgency that was pervasive in closed quarters.

“I think that sense of urgency is a little more evident because everybody realizes that we have four [regular-season] games left,” Mason said. “We have four games left and what we need to do, we've got to get it corrected quickly. … We need to hurry up and quickly get back on the field and get this thing rolling.”

It will apparently start with the running game. A year ago, the Ravens averaged 137.5 rush yards per game and 4.7 per carry. That ranked fifth and fourth in the NFL, respectively. This year the Ravens are averaging 108.4 rush yards per game (16th) and 3.6 per carry (31st).

The falloff can be traced to a number of things, among them that Rice has broken far fewer big plays than he did a year ago. Finishing blocks to the whistle is a step toward getting Rice free in the secondary.

“When we get the runs called, we've got to execute the run plays better,” Yanda said. “That starts at the point of attack, the guys that are front-side getting into their aiming points and stretching. And it's also the back-side blocks, too. So it's not just one guy, and it's not just the line. It's the back, the tight end, it's all three phases of that. We're all locked in and know what we have to get done.”

Rice, who is averaging 4.0 yards per carry and is on pace for a second straight 1,000-yard rush season with 844, is willing to take his share of the blame/responsibility. He said the big plays will come and that he missed one on Sunday when Polamalu cut him off with an ankle tackle.

“Those are plays that when you study a safety, you've got to study that kind of situation,” Rice said. “Do you want to square him up or do you want to run away from him? So, I'm going to have at least one or two guys I have to account for when I run the ball, and that really accounts for a big play. Our receivers are doing a great job blocking down the field, but once we get into the secondary, I think it's our job as backs to take care of those guys. And that's where we have to get to, just get to the secondary.”

Rice also alluded to the loss of tackle Jared Gaither to a thoracic disk injury in his back. Gaither never made it to the field this season and the ensuing shuffle sent Yanda from guard to tackle, where he has played well. But still the Ravens have had protection issues. They have allowed 17 sacks in the past five games after giving up only 10 in the first seven.

“There's times where it's just good defense and there's times where we need to do a little bit better job executing,” quarterback Joe Flacco said. “For the most part, I think we've had good enough pass protection.”

What will definitely help is the return of McClain, the bruising fullback. He missed the Steelers' game with an ankle sprain and the Ravens rushed for only 43 yards, averaging 2.2 on a season-low 20 attempts.

McClain helps set the tone on offense with his physicality.

“I take pride in it. Hopefully, this week we get back to what we've been doing and getting down-hill,” in the running game, he said. “We've got to be more physical, we've got to get back to that mentality we had in Year Two [2009]: They know we can run the ball and we know you can't stop us.

“We've got to get back to that mentality and get on these teams and wear them down throughout the game so we won't be in a situation like we were in Sunday.”


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