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Ravens' running game has become 'a concern' as team prepares for finale

Jon Meoli
Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun
Gary Kubiak on Ravens' running game: “It has been a concern. It's something we're working extremely hard

For months, offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak advised that all things in his offense flow through the running game, and the Ravens' early offensive success showed that.

With the Ravens needing a win (or tie) Sunday to keep their playoff chances alive, their best hope includes rediscovering a productive running attack against the Cleveland Browns' league-worst rushing defense.

"The last two weeks, we've struggled to run the ball," Kubiak said. "Us running the ball makes everything else go for us, so it's pretty obvious when we run the ball 19 times last week for [36] yards, we're not going to throw it good, probably, too. It has been a concern. It's something we're working extremely hard on. If we're going to win, we're usually going to run the ball well. I'd like us to get back to it real quick."

When the running game is at its best, such as in road wins over the New Orleans Saints (6.7 yards per carry) and Miami Dolphins (5.9), its success opens up the entire attack. Tight end Owen Daniels said that's been the case in each of his nine seasons under Kubiak, his former head coach in Houston.

When the running game struggles — such as Sunday's 19 carries for 36 yards against those same Texans, or the 3.6 yards per carry a week earlier against the Jacksonville Jaguars — the offense struggles to sustain drives.

"The way this offense runs, it's definitely key to get that going, because a lot of play action is set up off that. Our keepers are set up off that, and when we fall behind, we lose the ability to do that," quarterback Joe Flacco said.

Those symptoms were evident in the past two games. The Ravens entered the game against the Jaguars on Dec. 14 ranked fifth in the league with 135.7 rushing yards per game, but performances of 93 and 33 yards on the ground in the past two games dropped them to seventh while both exposing issues in the their blocking schemes and raising questions about the health of leading rusher Justin Forsett.

"It's been tough, that's for sure," Pro Bowl right guard Marshal Yanda said. "We love to run the ball, and it's a big part of our offense. We need to get back to it. We need to block better, and that starts with us up front. We just have to get it done better."

In explaining away Sunday's woes, players and coaches credited the Texans' scheme, as well as their talented defensive front. Texans defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel frequently sent linebackers up the middle, with those inside rushers filling cutback lanes for Forsett and keeping the offensive line from setting up blocks outside.

"We didn't handle the pressures very well early," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "They were running linebacker pressures up the middle that we didn't block for about a quarter and a half. We just didn't. And some of it had to do with how well they were running it as well. Those are things that you have to put a stop to."

The Ravens have seen those pressures all season, Kubiak said, but they dealt with them much better earlier. Running back Bernard Pierce, who had just one carry and fell behind undrafted rookie Fitzgerald Toussaint on the depth chart late in the game, believes the schemes have overwhelmed the Ravens recently.

"The last two weeks, we got schemed up pretty good," Pierce said. "I wouldn't say it's much of us. We definitely do our job, but at the end of the day, defenses get paid just like we do. It's a chess match, and the last two weeks I think they outperformed us, flat-out."

With Pierce's role minimized, rookie running back Lorenzo Taliaferro and his 4.3 yards per carry on injured reserve with a foot injury, and Toussaint unproven, the Ravens' rushing load falls mostly on Forsett, the league's sixth-leading rusher with 1,147 yards this season.

"We've shown when we have success and win games, we run the football," Forsett said. "You've just got to fix it. That's our mindset. We have to."

Forsett averaged over four yards per carry for the first 13 weeks of the season, then dipped to 2.6 yards per carry against the Jaguars and Texans. Against the Miami Dolphins a week earlier, a 44-yard fourth quarter run buoyed Forsett's running totals after an uncharacteristically slow start. He said the knee injury that kept him from practice for most of that week hasn't lingered later into December.

A Week 17 resurgence for Forsett, a Pro Bowl alternate who ranks sixth in the NFL with 1,147 yards and eight touchdowns, could be made difficult by shuffling on the offensive line. Starting right tackle Rick Wagner went on injured reserve Tuesday with a Lisfranc foot sprain, and left tackle Eugene Monroe missed practice Tuesday and Wednesday with an ankle injury. The Ravens ended Sunday's loss with rookie reserves James Hurst and John Urschel at left tackle and right guard, and Yanda at right tackle.

But that improvised unit will block a Browns run defense that allows a league-worst 142.4 yards per game and allowed 160 yards to the Ravens in Week 3. Daniels said those stats could be made moot if the Browns successfully mimic the Texans' pressure scheme.

"That's what we're working on this week, to get that taken care of," Daniels said. "We know Cleveland will throw [that] at us since we had so much trouble this week. That's what we do offensively when a defense struggles against a certain play or scheme, and defenses do the same thing for offenses."

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