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Ravens running attack hasn't materialized, and neither has the expected playing time

Ignore the Ravens defense’s first-half no-show, forget about the Cincinnati Bengals’ four sacks and focus on only one stat, and the Ravens’ loss Thursday night becomes, in hindsight, a “Well, duh” outcome.

Quarterback Joe Flacco passed 55 times in the 34-23 loss at Paul Brown Stadium. He has finished with more attempts in his career just twice. The eight highest-volume games of his career have all been losses. In games of 50 or more throws, he is 3-11. When the Ravens do not run, it is because they have deficits to make up, and the quickest way is through the air.

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Afterward, Ravens coach John Harbaugh said the team’s 21-0 second-quarter deficit did not alter the team’s offensive game plan significantly. “We want to throw the ball,” he said, and they had, with eight passing plays to just four running plays before Bengals wide receiver A.J. Green scored his third touchdown just two minutes into the second quarter.

“I don’t feel it got us out of the offense,” Harbaugh said. “Obviously, we need to do more in the huddle, and we did. We ran the ball OK, given the circumstances.”

The most revealing aspect of the Ravens’ near-comeback was not that they ran the ball on just 27.1 percent of their offensive plays Thursday — five of Flacco’s six-highest attempt totals came in losses last season — but in how they deployed their running backs.

In terms of playing time, starter Alex Collins and backup Buck Allen were equals, with both getting 42 snaps. In terms of production, they diverged sharply. Collins finished with nine carries for 35 yards and three catches for 55 yards. Allen had six carries for 8 yards and five catches for 36 yards. Collins averaged 7.5 yards per touch, Allen just 4.

And yet, in the game’s decisive stretch, Collins was missing in action. His last touch came with 3:45 remaining in the third quarter, a 6-yard run on first down on a drive that ended with Flacco's second interception. From that point, Allen finished the game with two carries and six targets, as well as an unsuccessful target on a 2-point conversion.

Collins had entered the season with eyes on a 1,000-yard season and more eyes on him. Added to the Ravens’ season-opening practice squad last season after the Seattle Seahawks cut him, he was promoted to the Ravens’ active roster for Week 2, started in Week 4 and finished the season with 973 rushing yards, 4.6 yards per carry and Pro Football Focus' highest grade among running backs.

Before this season, he advised fantasy football owners, “Draft me now before it’s too late, guys.” But after just 13 rushing yards in the Ravens' season-opening rout of the Buffalo Bills and Thursday's loss, he has a team-high 48 yards on 16 carries, a yardage total he surpassed in all but four games last season. He’s on pace for 384 rushing yards this year.

That could be a function of trust as much as opportunity. Collins’ involvement in Week 1 tapered off after he lost a fumble — he had four fumbles last season, losing two — and Harbaugh said last week that the pelting rain in Baltimore was not to blame.

“It’s always a technique thing,” he said. “You can’t fumble, no matter what. Alex knows that. … If it was greased, you have to hold on to it. We don’t want to turn the ball over, especially fumbles. He knows that. He’ll focus on that.”

With third-string running back Kenneth Dixon out with a knee injury, Allen figures to see ample action in the backfield. He has long been regarded as the team’s most reliable receiver out of the backfield, an important weapon on third down, but Allen so far has played more snaps this season than the team’s incumbent starter.

Their usage will hinge on the offense’s continued evolution and opposing defenses’ approach to stopping them. Collins was close to unstoppable on check-downs Thursday, an added dimension in his game, and has forced 10 missed tackles on 20 touches this season, according to Pro Football Focus. He also has faced at least eight defenders in the box on over 60 percent of his carries, one of the highest rates in the NFL, according to the league’s Next Gen Stats.

At John Harbaugh’s postgame news conference and inside the Ravens’ locker room Thursday night, reporters asked about the health of linebacker C.J. Mosley, about the offense’s uneven play, about the Bengals’ continued dominance in the series. On Monday, Harbaugh will prioritize the need to move on to Week 3.

There, the Ravens will find a fearsome Denver Broncos pass rush, as good a reason as any to avoid throwing 55 passes.

“You have to keep your head up and believe what you’re building around here,” Flacco said Thursday. “This is the NFL; nothing is promised, and we know that. We fought tonight. It wasn’t pretty and we didn’t come out with a win, but it’s a long season. We have to keep our heads up and be positive. I think we have a good football team, and guys reacted well to what happened tonight. We just have to move on.”

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