As the Ravens begin the second half of the 2015 season Sunday against the Jacksonville Jaguars, one of their top priorities from the start of the season remains unfulfilled.
The Ravens still need to run the ball. If they can't, there is a good chance they will end up with a losing record and miss the postseason for the second time in three years.
"We've been committed to running the ball," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "We can run the ball better, more effectively — yards per carry, yards per gain. People have determined that it is important to stop the run against us, and they've committed a lot of resources to doing that defensively, and we have to counterpunch that.
'We have to have an answer for that, and those are things that we understand. We can run the ball better, but we can also protect our run better by making people pay for overcommitting to stopping it."
Through eight games, the Ravens (2-6) are ranked 22nd in the 32-team NFL in rushing, averaging 99.3 yards per game. They have gone over the 100-yard mark in three of those games, but were held under 80 in four others. And that's with star receiver Steve Smith Sr. playing in seven games.
With Smith out for the second half of the season with a ruptured Achilles tendon, more and more teams are going to crowd the line of scrimmage and force quarterback Joe Flacco to throw to a group of mediocre receivers.
"We're certainly not where we want to be," Ravens offensive coordinator Marc Trestman said. "There was a point about four weeks ago when we thought we were moving in the right direction. We had a couple of very, very productive games running the football, and then it diminished. Sometimes that's game situations.
"I can't be too specific with that, because it's in the past, but we're always working to get better. We don't run a lot of different runs — we're more formation than types — but we're going to take a good, hard look at everything. Certainly, we want to be more productive. It's not how many times we run, but it's the production we have when we're running the football, and we want to do better."
Being able to run could help the Ravens in other ways, too. A run-dominated, ball-control offense would allow them to control the pace and time of possession in the game, which might limit the amount of big plays given up by a Ravens secondary that is allowing 283.9 passing yards a game.
Also, it helps to have a running game when the winter sets in and the weather becomes unpredictable. With young, unproven receivers like Kamar Aiken, Marlon Brown, Chris Givens and Jeremy Ross, the Ravens should have more confidence in an offensive line that many thought was one of the best in the NFL when the season started.
So far, they haven't proven it.
"We want to get the run game going every week. It doesn't matter who is playing, who's not, and I think that that's one of our main priorities right now, really focusing early on the run game because that opens up everything else throughout the game," Ravens right tackle Rick Wagner said. "We're out there practicing like we're ready to run the ball every time. I'm happy about that."
The offensive line hasn't played up to the level of last season, when the Ravens averaged nearly 365 yards per game including 126.2 rushing. During the offseason, Harbaugh said the running scheme and terminology wouldn't change much from the one used by coordinator Gary Kubiak in 2014.
The transition might be part of the problem. There might be other reasons as well. Left tackle Eugene Monroe has missed four games with an assortment of injuries, and both Wagner and left guard Kelechi Osemele seem to be struggling from major ankle injuries suffered a year ago.
Center Jeremy Zuttah has been solid, but unspectacular. The best lineman has been right guard Marshal Yanda.
"We've been solid as a group, been a tight family and we've been getting better every week," Osemele said. "We just have to keep fighting and grinding, and stay physical."
The Ravens could use more consistency from starting running back Justin Forsett (562 rushing yards on 133 attempts) and backup Buck Allen (163, 37). Forsett was indecisive at the beginning of the season but has improved since the third game. Allen has good potential and has come close to breaking a couple of long runs, but can't run through arm tackles. It's as if his legs are too heavy, which would be a problem this early in the season.
Against the Jaguars, the Ravens will face a team that is ranked No. 7 against the run, allowing only 94.3 yards per game. A key, according to the Ravens, is establishing the run early.
"They run to the ball, they have speed, particularly their front seven," said Trestman. "They're very good tacklers, and they're in the right place. It's very evident if you watch all the games, they do an outstanding job stopping the run. We've got to find a way to mix the run in and move the football against their defense. The first thing is to try to neutralize some of the things they're doing in their front. We've got to pay close attention to our matchups, our formations, and how we're packaging them.
"It's something we've spent some time on over the last few weeks, really trying to find the things that are necessary to pick it up for us, particularly early in the games," said Trestman of the running game. "We've spent time on it, we're working on it, and hopefully that will be reflected on Sunday."