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Against Steelers on Saturday, Ravens look to fix recent struggles in first half

Ravens running back Justin Forsett is stopped by a group of Cleveland Browns defenders in the first quarter Sunday.
Ravens running back Justin Forsett is stopped by a group of Cleveland Browns defenders in the first quarter Sunday. (Kenneth K. Lam, Baltimore Sun)

Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco pivoted to his right as wide receiver Marlon Brown ran in motion toward him in the first quarter of Sunday's game against the Cleveland Browns, an action intended to confuse the defense.

It didn't have the proper effect, though. And instead of flipping the ball to Brown, Flacco executed a routine handoff to running back Justin Forsett, who was tackled for a 3-yard loss on the fourth-and-goal play.

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The sequence was emblematic of how the Ravens' sputtering offense has struggled to score and gain yards early in games in December.

Heading into Saturday night's AFC wild-card playoff game against the Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field, the Ravens have been outscored, 41-20, in the first half of the past four games. In that span, they have failed to score an offensive touchdown in the first quarter.

"I don't know if it's nerves, I don't know how to put my finger on it," Forsett said. "It's something that has to stop or the season will stop on us. I know we have the talent to make plays and do what we need to do. On Saturday, the talent, we have to step up and do our job.

"We've got to execute. It's coming down to us not doing our job early on. We can't allow that to happen. It's the postseason. We've got to start fast and finish stronger, execute the details and make sure everyone is doing the right reads, catching the ball, cutting and doing what they need to do."

Even before Forsett was tackled for a loss by Browns safety Donte Whitner on fourth down, the Ravens offense had struggled in the beginning of the regular-season finale.

In the three plays before that failed attempt, running back Bernard Pierce was stopped twice and rookie tight end Crockett Gillmore dropped a potential touchdown. During the Ravens' first drive of the game, veteran tight end Owen Daniels jumped offsides on the first play before wide receiver Steve Smith dropped a pass to force a three-and-out sequence.

Although the Ravens broke single-season franchise records with 409 points and 5,838 yards of total offense in offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak's first year with the team, their struggles keep mounting at the beginning of games.

The Ravens had 30 first-half possessions in December, but 14 of those drives ended in punts and four were stopped by turnovers. Against the Browns, the Ravens had four drives in the first quarter with 21 yards of total offense and three punts.

"We've struggled with some interesting stuff," Kubiak said. "The other day, the first four plays of the game we jumped offsides, dropped the ball and fumbled the snap. Those things you take for granted all the time, so I don't know.

"We had been a pretty good starting football team through about 12 weeks, and then we went on about a three-week span there where we hadn't started games very well, but the good news is we have rallied and made some plays. We need to start better, but, if we don't, we need to keep battling and make the plays before the day is over."

That's something the Ravens feel particularly strong about against the Steelers' 18th-ranked defense that's led by inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons and ranks sixth against the run.

"Slow starts, third downs, touchdowns in the red zone, especially when you play Pittsburgh in Pittsburgh, those are things you really need to do well," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "We need to do better at those things if we expect to come out of there with a victory."

During the opening quarter of their games against the Houston Texans, Jacksonville Jaguars, Miami Dolphins and Browns, the Ravens failed to score on offense. The Ravens' lone touchdown in the first quarter during that span came on a blocked punt against the Jaguars.

Against the Browns, the Ravens were shut out in the first half and gained just 126 yards of total offense as they went 3-for-9 on third downs and 0-for-2 in the red zone.

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"Obviously, it's something we need to address and fix and make sure it doesn't happen," Flacco said. "But I think the biggest thing is just to go out there and be aggressive and do the things that we do well and make the plays when they're presented to us and just play fundamental."

The Ravens finished the regular season ranked 12th in total offense, eighth in rushing offense, 13th in passing offense and eighth in points scored with an average of 25.6 points per game.

But the recent bad starts have forced the team to play from behind at some point in each of the last four games. Despite that, the team went 3-1 in that stretch.

"You don't want to put yourself in a hole, you have to play better," wide receiver Steve Smith said. "We just have to play ball, and we have to play better, and we have to make more plays than them. Hopefully at the end of the game, we have more on the scoreboard than they do."

Ravens center Jeremy Zuttah said the offense might be pressing and dealing with nerves at the start of games, an emotional reaction to wanting to play so well that mistakes are happening.

"That might be it," Zuttah said. "We do have some things out of character that's only come up in the first couple of drives. We could be a little anxious to get everything going. Luckily, our defense has done a great job of keeping the game reachable every week.

"You can't rely on that every week, especially playing against a good offense."

The Steelers are ranked second in the NFL in total offense and passing offense, led by quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and wide receiver Antonio Brown. So, falling behind could be a big problem for the Ravens on Saturday night.

The Ravens have surrendered just 19 sacks this season, the second-fewest in franchise history. And Flacco has passed for a career-high 3,986 yards and 27 touchdowns.

Yet the Ravens' early-game lapses almost left them on the outside of the playoffs. Still, Flacco knows the team received another chance to fix their recent failures when they play the Steelers on Saturday night.

"The biggest thing is just moving the ball and not giving them a lot of third-down chances to really get up and get going early on in the game," Flacco said. "We've probably hurt ourselves more so than anything with false starts and little things like that.

"And when you do that, especially on the road, you give their crowd a good chance to get into it and really get fired up. The biggest thing we have to do is move the ball early and get into the flow of the game."

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