Baltimore Ravens offensive coordinator Marc Trestman talks about the need for improvement despite the 3-0 start this season. (Algerina Perna, Baltimore Sun video)
The Ravens' perfect start has disguised their imperfect starts in three victories.
While the team is one of just five still undefeated, it has not exactly been sprinting out of the locker room in those wins.
In eight offensive possessions in the opening quarters, the Ravens have punted four times, committed two turnovers, and scored one touchdown and one field goal. They also got a two-point conversion off of a blocked extra-point attempt.
The team has been outscored 20-12 in the first quarter. While 13 other offenses have scored less than 12 points in the same frame, players and coaches are fully aware of the significance of getting an early lead.
"It's very important because the more weeks pass, the more teams settle in, and the better teams get," wide receiver Mike Wallace said. "So we won't be able to make those same mistakes and probably come back like we have been. Like I said, the weeks pass, those teams are going to find themselves, and everybody will, and when you get down in a game, some of those games, you won't be able to come back. So you have to have a fast start. You can't get down 20-0, you can't get down 14-0. Sometimes it happens like that. We just have the character and the players though to overcome it."
Outcomes usually don't hinge on the first quarter, and plenty of teams might sacrifice lethargic openings for strong finishes. But fast starts can be a telltale sign, especially for the Ravens.
In two of the last three seasons, the Ravens were outscored by opponents in first quarters. Opposing teams outscored the Ravens 63-59 in 2013 and 80-64 in 2015. The team did not qualify for the playoffs in those years.
The team failed to score a touchdown in the first quarter this fall until 3:52 remaining in the opening period of Sunday's 19-17 Week 3 win against the Jacksonville Jaguars. That's the longest the Ravens have gone without scoring a first-quarter touchdown since 2010, when that squad also scored in the third game of the year.
It's beginning to sound like a broken record, but minuscule gains in the run game have helped promote these slow starts. The rushing offense ranks 26th in the NFL at 82.3 yards per game.
The eventual return of rookie running back Kenneth Dixon, who led the team in rushing in the preseason before suffering a strained MCL in his left knee on Aug. 27, could spark something on the ground. But he's practicing on a limited basis and isn't ready to play in games yet.
Running back Terrance West said he has faith that the current group of tailbacks will eventually produce.
"We just have to take it back to the practice field and take it one play at a time," said West (Northwestern High, Towson University). "The running game is going to bust open. We just have to be patient, and when it happens, we have to take advantage of it."
The simple solution is preaching more precise execution from the players. Offensive coordinator Marc Trestman said details such as a dropped passes or missed blocking assignments have grounded drives and prompted punts.
"Those are things we all can control," he said. "We've got to do a better job of being more consistent and coming out faster. It's still too early to tell, but we've got to play better early on, and there's no doubt about that, and that's on each and every one of us to get that done."
As the season continues to unfold, opposing defenses will have improved in their schemes and their study of the Ravens' offensive tendencies. That's why there is no quick and easy remedy to coach John Harbaugh.
"It's a tough league, and you're going against the best football teams and players in the land, and everybody is pretty even," he said. "There's a lot of parity in this league. There are always going to be things that you're not going to be happy about. Even in blowout wins, there are things that teams are not happy with that they need to do better. In the tight kind of games that we're going to play, you're going to have to overcome a slow start or you get a fast start. We had two three and outs on offense, but we ended up getting a 10-point lead. Then they whittled their way back into it. We want to get the lead as soon as we can, and then we want to extend the lead as much as we can."
Two of the Ravens' next four opponents — the Washington Redskins on Oct. 9 and the New York Jets on Oct. 23 — have been outscored in the first quarter this season. And as quarterback Joe Flacco deepens his cohesion with wide receivers Steve Smith Sr., Mike Wallace and Breshad Perriman, the passing attack could set the stage for further development.
Confidence certainly is not an issue, as evidenced by Flacco's response to the slow starts.
"I'm not really too worried about it," he said. "I feel like we know what is going on. We feel good about a lot of the things we are doing. We feel like we are ready to burst onto the scene. We have a lot of moving parts, a lot of guys catching passes. I think if we get our run game going a little bit and clean up the little things like penalties, some drops and a couple missed throws — stuff like that — I think we will be going."