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Ravens' rushing game, absent so far, is essential

As if there wasn't enough to be concerned about, an old problem has resurfaced. The Ravens have struggled running the ball.

As if there wasn't enough to be concerned about, an old problem has resurfaced. The Ravens have struggled running the ball.

That might not be a big deal if the Ravens had an offense or a quarterback like Green Bay with Aaron Rodgers or New England with Tom Brady, but a strong running game is a necessary complement for the Ravens and quarterback Joe Flacco.

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It's essential.

In the past seven playoff or regular season games where Flacco has thrown the ball 40 times or more, the Ravens are 0-7. During his career, the Ravens are 7-15 in games during which Flacco has had 40 or more attempts.

The evidence was clear Sunday in the Ravens' 28-24 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals. The Ravens ran the ball 18 times for 36 yards as Flacco completed 32 of 49 passes for 362 yards, two touchdowns and one interception.

The Ravens don't need to be the Miami Dolphins of the 1970s, but a little help in the running game won't hurt. Once the linebackers come up in run support, the Ravens can go over top with the play-action passes.

"We still tried some stuff like that early on, but we just weren't able to get anybody open downfield where it took so long to develop because they were getting so much depth that it was very tough to operate," Flacco said after the game on Sunday. "And we kind of just wasted a whole first half trying to run our offense, and we just weren't good enough at doing it.

"We didn't make them uncomfortable. We didn't do anything to get them off of their heels."

So, as the Ravens begin preparations for Thursday night's game against the Steelers in Pittsburgh, they have a lot to work on: communication in the secondary, developing a pass rush, finishing off games in the final minutes and improving the running game, which more closely resembles the 30th-ranked 2013 version than the group that was ranked eighth in the NFL last year.

If they get better rushing production, it not only would take pressure off Flacco, but increase the effectiveness of a marginally-talented receiving corps. It could also keep a poor secondary off the field longer.

"It's on everybody," Ravens running back Justin Forsett said. "It's on myself, I have to do a better job on reading and making cuts. That's what I look at first. It's a team thing, we have to look at the film and see what we can do better, but we have the guys to do it for sure."

The running game and the offensive line were expected to carry the Ravens, especially in the early part of the season as a young group of receivers developed. A year ago, the Ravens averaged 126.2 yards a game as Forsett rushed for 1,266 yards on 235 carries. He led the league with 17 runs of 20 yards or longer, a franchise record.

But against Cincinnati, Forsett had 13 yards on 10 carries. Backup Lorenzo Taliaferro had three carries for zero yards. That's embarrassing.

"I think it's little details," Forsett said. "We're also playing some great defenses. We just have to do better. We have to look at the film and just figure out what that is."

Forsett is correct. Cincinnati is ranked No. 5 in run defense, allowing 76.7 yards a game, while Denver is No. 7 (82.7) and Oakland 14th (91.7). But there are other issues. Both offensive tackles, Rick Wagner and James Hurst, have struggled, and those cut blocks that got opposing linemen on the ground last year don't seem as effective this year.

Forsett often evaded or ran through the first tackler and seldom was stopped behind the line of scrimmage in 2014, but he seems to go down easier this year on first contact. The cutback lanes of a year ago are nowhere to be found.

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"We just need to run the ball better," Ravens guard Marshal Yanda said. "I feel like we haven't gotten it going yet, and we need to just figure it out and get better. And it needs to start right now."

Running the ball effectively against Pittsburgh would be a nice start. They are tough up front, allowing 87.3 rushing yards a game, but it would be nice if the Steelers, who will be without starting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, couldn't put the ball in the hands of receivers Antonio Brown, Darrius Heyward-Bey and tight end Heath Miller.

Thus far in three games the Ravens offense has basically consisted of Flacco and receiver Steve Smith Sr., and Flacco has had very little margin for error. A very good quarterback has had to be near-perfect just to be close to a victory.

"You definitely want to start fast. We've got a great team and a great offense and you would think we would be able to do more explosive stuff in the run game," Forsett said. "Sometimes it happens like that. All it takes is a few plays to get going, and maybe we can do that here in this next game."

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