All smiles and grace on and off the field a season ago, Ravens running back Justin Forsett let slip a moment of frustration with the team's struggling running game last Sunday.
The instances when a Ravens running play has looked the way it's drawn up this year have been scarce compared to last year's almost machine-like success, but on second-and-4 near midfield in the second quarter against the Cincinnati Bengals, everything seemed to click.
With the run designed to go to the right side, guard Marshal Yanda pulled and sealed across the left side. Tackles James Hurst and Rick Wagner shepherded their defenders past the play, and guard Kelechi Osemele and center Jeremy Zuttah were in the second level in a heartbeat.
Forsett had just one man to beat for a big gain straight from the 2014 Ravens highlight film.
A year ago, he often made that defender miss and popped outside for one of his league-leading 17 runs of 20 yards or more. But he stumbled after a shoestring tackle attempt, and realizing the missed opportunity, slapped the ball in anger before pulling himself up off the turf. The play everyone on the offense had been waiting for, the one that would turn around the struggling ground game, eluded him again.
"Like it's been for everything else, we feel like we've been close to making some big plays, but little details have kept us away from making those big plays and finishing," Forsett said. "Those things stick out to you."
With Forsett — a Pro Bowl selection last year — his lead blocker Kyle Juszczyk, and the top seven offensive lineman from the league's eighth-best rushing offense a season ago returning this season, that sputtering unit's performance as the team nears the quarter pole in 2015 was thought to be almost as unlikely as the resulting 0-3 record.
Across the board, the running game has regressed. The holes aren't often there, and when they are, Forsett hasn't hit them like he did a year ago. The proud and experienced unit, under fire, will be challenged by a short week of practice ahead of the AFC North matchup against the Steelers in Pittsburgh on Thursday night.
"We're just going to do everything in our power to run the ball better, boss," guard Marshal Yanda said. "There's no fancy way of saying it any better."
However you slice the numbers, the results of the ground attack are much closer to the league-worst rushing offense of 2013 than the 2014 performance. The Ravens are averaging 72.6 yards per game (tied for 27th in the NFL) this season, more than 50 fewer yards per game from last year's 126.2.
Forsett's 5.39 yards per carry last year led all NFL running backs, but his 3.2 yards per carry this year ranks 41st among backs. Reserves Lorenzo Taliaferro (3.4 yards per carry) and Buck Allen (3.6 yards per carry) are only slightly better.
"We haven't put out the kind of running game we want to put out," offensive coordinator Marc Trestman said. "We have to get back to work at that, and we did this week — obviously, in the classroom — to clean up some areas of fundamentals and techniques and working with our running game, starting with the outside zone and everything else that we do when we're running the football."
Trestman called it an "evolving group" when it comes to their running and blocking. He's the only new face in the mix as the replacement for the departed offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak, who built last year's successful ground game before leaving to coach the Denver Broncos. Trestman said it's "too early to really point a finger at where we are," but took responsibility for the early struggles.
"I think a lot of it is just one step here, a fundamental there," he said. "I have to do a better job of making sure the plays that we're running attack the weaknesses when we can find the weaknesses. I have to do a better job. It starts with me, and everybody working together to try to get it done."
None of the linemen or running backs believe what they're being asked to do is materially different this year under Trestman compared to 2014 under Kubiak. The personnel is the same, but tackles Rick Wagner and James Hurst — the latter is starting for Eugene Monroe, who suffered a concussion in Week 1 and only this week returned to practice — haven't been the same players they were a season ago as run blockers, and the line had little time to work together in the preseason because of injuries.
The main difference to many is the execution needed to break long runs, like the one Forsett so badly wanted in the second quarter against Cincinnati.
"We haven't been able to get our backs or Justin clean to the second level, where he can make one guy miss easier," center Jeremy Zuttah said. "He's had to fight through more traffic than he had to, and getting him clean to the second level has been a challenge for us."
Forsett's been bottled up more often than ever through the first three weeks. One-third of his 39 carries have been for no gain or a loss of yardage this year, up from 20 percent a season ago. According to Pro Football Focus data, Forsett averaged 3 yards per attempt before contact last year. He's averaging 1.1 yards before contact this season.
All of that is preventing those big plays that Zuttah and the offense long for. Forsett's only run of 20 yards or longer this year was on a third-down, shotgun pitch with just over a minute remaining against Denver that went for 20 yards down the sideline. His four longest runs have been out of the shotgun.
Even that's a new wrinkle that underscores their struggles on the ground this year. The Ravens ran nine running plays out of the shotgun last season. This year, they have gained as many yards (109) on the 15 runs out of the shotgun formation (7.3 yards per carry) as they have on 51 carries from under center, where they average 2.1 yards per carry.
Some of that, Trestman and Forsett say, comes down to game situations — through three games, the Ravens have rarely led and because they've been behind, haven't been in position to establish the run early in football games.
"It's been hard, because we've been trailing early, so you've got to play a different type of game when you're trying to get back into it," Forsett said. "That plays a part in it, but we definitely want to be balanced. We want to be able to run the ball."
No one involved in the offense believes the struggles will last.