Baltimore Ravens head coach John Harbaugh talks about the 19-14 win over the Bengals, the condition of the field, Justin Tucker, and Joe Flacco. (Lloyd Fox, Baltimore Sun video)
The formula has worked well enough for the Ravens to win six games and earn a share of first place in the AFC North with the Pittsburgh Steelers. But even in the din after the Ravens' 19-14 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday, quarterback Joe Flacco acknowledged that the way the offense had just played won't be good enough to get the team to the playoffs.
"We're not going to survive week in and week out doing things like that," Flacco said after the Ravens were held to just one touchdown and scored only three second-half points.
At times this season, the Ravens (6-5) have won largely in spite of their sluggish offense. They've been able to lean on the NFL's second-ranked defense and on the right leg of kicker Justin Tucker, who made all four of his field-goal attempts against the Bengals and is perfect on 27 attempts this season.
What has been good enough to beat the likes of the Jacksonville Jaguars, Cleveland Browns and a reeling Bengals team doesn't figure to work against the Miami Dolphins, who come to M&T Bank Stadium on Sunday with an AFC-best six-game winning streak... or the following week, on the road against the New England Patriots (9-2)... or on Christmas Day against the host Steelers in what could amount to a postseason play-in game.
As they start preparing for the second game of what coach John Harbaugh billed last week as a six-game season, the Ravens seem to understand that how they're currently winning probably isn't sustainable. If they're going to outlast the Steelers and win their first AFC North title since 2012, their offense is going to have to find a way to be more consistent and explosive.
"I'd love to see numbers be through the roof, but numbers don't win games," Harbaugh said Monday. "We need to score more points as an offense. That's the bottom line, and we've just got to continue to find a way to do that. I believe we can do it, I know we can do it."
Through 11 games, the Ravens are tied for 23rd in the NFL in yards per game (334.2). They're averaging just 19.8 points per game. Only seven teams average less and only one of those teams — the Houston Texans — has a winning record.
They rank 28th in rushing yards per game (27.8), 29th in yards per play (4.9) and dead last in third-down efficiency (33.3 percent). Those numbers paint the picture of an offense that has scored one or no touchdowns in six of 11 games. The Ravens' 17 offensive touchdowns are the second fewest in the league, ahead of just the Texans (16).
"We just have to execute better," Harbaugh said. "We have to get first downs. We have to stay out of the hole. When you get on the 10-yard line and you make a couple first downs and you get in that plus fringe range, you have to make a play. There's never any one thing. You've got to execute these plays in these situations."
The Ravens seemed primed for an offensive breakthrough Sunday when they drove 75 yards on 11 plays and got a 14-yard Breshad Perriman touchdown catch on their first possession. However, they never got back in the end zone again and they were bailed out by Tucker, who connected on field goals of 52, 57, 54 and 36 yards.
That they haven't and the regular season is more than two thirds old has convinced many pundits that the Ravens won't be able to keep up with the Steelers in the division race.
"The kicker is the best player on the team, but you can't depend on your kicker to make 50-plus-yard field goals every week to win football games," NBC analyst and former NFL safety Rodney Harrison said on the "Football Night in America" pre-game show.
Tucker has accounted for 96 of the Ravens' 218 points, 44 percent.
"In this league … you can have a really good defense, but you have to be able to score," former NFL running back LaDainian Tomlinson said during NFL Network's Sunday programming. "At the end of the day, you have to score, and because the Ravens cannot score, and the Steelers can score, I give [Pittsburgh] the edge."
Despite the outside criticism and numbers that show the Ravens, in several areas, have been less productive offensively in six games with offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg calling the plays than in the first five games under the fired Marc Trestman, Harbaugh maintains there are improvements being made.
He pointed Monday to better play by the Ravens' offensive line over the past two weeks, and the team seemingly settling into a nice one-two combination on the ground with Terrance West (Northwestern High, Towson University) and rookie Kenneth Dixon. The two combined for 144 all-purpose yards against the Bengals.
Flacco and the rest of the offense have also had success the past three games when in a no-huddle offense. It's what got the offense going in the Nov. 10 victory over the Browns, and it also yielded encouraging results the past two weeks against the Cowboys and Bengals.
Leading the Bengals by 13 points at halftime, the Ravens went away from the no-huddle for stretches of the second half, and Flacco said later that he felt the offense lost its tempo and "got a little bit conservative." Harbaugh said Monday that the Ravens will continue to use the no-huddle, but cautioned that the team isn't built to use it exclusively.
The Ravens still want to be able to sustain drives and win games by relying on their running game and mixing in big passing plays down the field. That's the preferred formula rather than being forced to lean on Tucker and the defense to close out games.
Thus far, though, that formula has been elusive, and the Ravens are running out of time to find it. Sunday's game against the Dolphins represents the next opportunity.
"You're not going to see the same defense, and you're not going to see the same schemes. They're going to be scheming up ways to attack your weaknesses, and you've got to account for that," Harbaugh said. "That's what makes football great. That's what makes it so challenging, and that's our challenge on offense — to get it to the point where the results are with what you and I and everybody want to see, which is yards and points and winning football that can extend leads in the second half."