At the end of one of the longest drives in franchise history, not much separated the Ravens on Sunday from an opening-possession touchdown — just 2 yards on first down, then 1 yard on second down, then again on third down, then again on fourth down.
Over the past three years, through injuries and illness, through good weather and bad, short-yardage success had become almost a birthright for the offense. In Lamar Jackson, the Ravens had perhaps the NFL’s greatest-ever running quarterback. In offensive coordinator Greg Roman, they had a creative run-game designer. And in the trenches, they’d assembled blockers capable of leveraging both.
But reputation didn’t get the Ravens anywhere against the Miami Dolphins. Their goal-line goose egg — four runs, 1 yard, one fumble, no points — underscored just how far this rushing offense is from its preseason expectations. Through two weeks, the Ravens are 13th in the NFL in yards per carry (4.7) and 18th in rushing offense (109.0 yards per game). Maybe most alarmingly, they rank last in Football Outsiders’ efficiency metrics, after never finishing a season lower than 11th from 2019 to 2021.
Their struggles to punctuate their 18-play, nearly-11-minute drive late in the first quarter and early in the second quarter showed not only how fragile success was, but also how close the Ravens were to it in their 42-38 loss.
On first-and-goal from the 2, Dolphins defensive end Emmanuel Ogbah shoved tight end Mark Andrews aside, and rookie tight end Isaiah Likely, who’d lined up in the backfield, couldn’t blow a path through to the goal line for running back Mike Davis.
On second-and-goal from the 1, former Ravens defensive lineman Zach Sieler swam over left tackle Patrick Mekari’s lunging block and took out Davis’ legs as he approached the line of scrimmage.
On third-and-goal from the 1, Miami defensive tackle Raekwon Davis freed himself just enough from right tackle Morgan Moses to wrap a hand around Jackson, while inside linebacker Sam Eguavoen triggered fast enough to down Jackson short of the goal line.
And on fourth-and-goal from the 1, Jackson said center Tyler Linderbaum “got cut” as he delivered his under-center exchange. The snap wasn’t “comfortable,” said Jackson, who fumbled the ball and watched the Ravens’ drive end there.
“You watch our film, you’re like, ‘Oh, we could’ve done this, we could’ve done that,’” guard Kevin Zeitler said Wednesday. “It’s up to us, whoever that person is, we’ve got to get that job, whether it’s an extra second of blocking, match your hinge [block], whatever we have to do. We’re getting close.”
After a season-opening win over the New York Jets, offensive coordinator Greg Roman said the rushing attack’s execution was lacking in “one thing here, one thing there.” As the Ravens look to regroup ahead of Sunday’s road game against the New England Patriots, here are the areas where they can improve.
Running back production
When the Ravens lost Gus Edwards last year to a season-ending knee injury, they lost one of the NFL’s best between-the-tackles ball carriers, someone who could reliably turn a 2-yard loss into a 1-yard carry or a 3-yard gain into a 5-yard gain.
When the Ravens lost J.K. Dobbins last year to his own season-ending knee injury, they lost a shifty runner who could threaten defenses with his lateral movement as much as his acceleration up the gut.
With both running backs still on the mend — Dobbins has yet to make his season debut, and Edwards hasn’t been cleared to practice — the Ravens have looked for answers elsewhere at the position. But production hasn’t come easily.
Running back Kenyan Drake, signed just before the season, has 17 carries for 39 yards. Fourth-year veteran Justice Hill has five carries for 20 yards. Davis has seven carries for 15 yards. Together, they’ve amassed 74 yards on 29 runs (2.6 per attempt). Jackson has 15 carries for 136 yards, much of them coming on his 79-yard touchdown Sunday.
“I think we’re close,” Davis said Wednesday. “It’s just something we’ve just got to keep working on. It’ll come.”
The challenge has been turning nothing into something, or turning something small into something significant. According to Pro Football Reference, no running back has broken a tackle yet this season. Hill leads the group in average yards after contact, at just 1 yard per carry.
On Hill’s 13-yard carry toward the end of the first half Sunday, during a no-huddle drive, he ran toward the sideline, where he had some blocking help, rather than taking his chances and bursting into the open field on a shotgun handoff.
“We’ve got to get our running game going, and I think the running backs are a big part of that,” coach John Harbaugh said Monday. “Running backs have a lot to do with how good your run game is, and we need those guys to help make our run game better.”
Offensive line execution
Ravens running backs need more holes to hit, too.
According to Pro Fooball Focus, Zeitler ranks as the NFL’s No. 20 run-blocking guard through two weeks, while Ben Powers ranks among the worst.
At tackle, Mekari and Moses, whose run-blocking ability was heralded upon his signing this offseason, have graded out as among the NFL’s least effective run blockers, according to PFF.
At center, Linderbaum has fared well as a run blocker, rated 11th overall by PFF, though he’s struggled somewhat in pass protection.
Evaluations of offensive line play can vary wildly, especially early in the season. According to ESPN’s player-tracking data, Powers has the ninth-best run block win rate among NFL guards, while the Ravens rank seventh overall in the team-wide metric, which measures how often a defender “wins” his repetition by either beating his blocker, disrupting the pocket or running lane, containing the runner or recording a tackle close to the line of scrimmage.
“We’ve got to be creative,” Harbaugh said Monday. “We’ve got to find a way to block people, because we missed a couple blocks; we’ve got to find a way not to necessarily run into the teeth of the defense. Sometimes you can. Many times, we’ve run the ball right downhill into the teeth of a goal-line defense and scored and your back puts it in there. But we didn’t do that in this game.”
Sometimes the Ravens have blocked well enough to spring a long run, only to watch the ball go elsewhere.
In the fourth quarter Sunday, Drake took an outside-zone handoff in the pistol formation, spotted a cutback lane and tried his luck inside. He was swallowed up for a 1-yard loss. As Dolphins players encircled Drake, fullback Patrick Ricard, his main escort on the play, raised his hands as if surprised to see Drake hadn’t followed him outside, where other blockers were pulling into open space.
The Ravens’ rushing struggles caught up to them late in Sunday’s loss, when a failed fourth-and-1 conversion midway through the fourth quarter helped give the Dolphins good field position. Five plays later, Miami was celebrating another touchdown, this one having trimmed the Ravens’ lead to 35-28.
The push-and-pull on offense will carry on throughout the season. If Jackson’s passing continues to trouble defenses, he could open up more space for the Ravens’ running game. Harbaugh said both the Jets and Dolphins committed numbers to stopping the team’s rushing offense. Other coordinators might not be as willing to take their chances with Jackson dropping back.
If they do, the Ravens’ preference for heavier formations could lay the groundwork for more explosive plays. By lining up with multiple tight ends and fullbacks, the Ravens invite defenses to match up with linebackers, rather than defensive backs. And what those defensive fronts might gain in size, they’ll likely lose in speed. When Jackson burst through Sunday, there was no one to catch him.
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“These guys [on defense] put a lot of bodies close to the line of scrimmage,” Harbaugh said. “It helps us get a couple really big runs, especially the touchdown run [against Miami]. So once you get through that second line of defense — maybe it’s two-level, but it’s not three-level — a guy like Lamar or any back can go the whole way. So that’s part of it. But we’ve got to do a better job in critical situations.”
Sunday, 1 p.m.
TV: Ch. 45
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Line: Ravens by 2 1/2