Lack of ground game gives Ravens run-down feeling

November 01, 1998|By John Eisenberg

If the Ravens don't beat the Jacksonville Jaguars today, their chances of making something out of this season are nil.

In fact, their chances might be nil even if they do beat the Jags. That's what happens when you lose five of your first seven games.

How did the Ravens land in such discouraging circumstances? That's easy. They failed to develop their running game.

Sure, other circum- stances contributed. The injuries to quarterback Jim Harbaugh. The weekly special teams collapses. The conservative play-calling. It takes a village to go 2-5.

But make no mistake, the biggest factor underlying the Ravens' disappointing season is their inability to run the ball.

Coach Ted Marchibroda made several lineup changes and banned reporters from practice last week to try to shake his team into playing better, with the media ban serving as a cheap attempt to pinpoint an enemy after three straight losses.

But regardless of who watches practice or starts today, the Ravens won't play any better in this or any other game without improving their running game.

They're ranked 21st in the league in rushing yardage, as opposed to 11th in passing yardage. They're also ranked 25th in rushing attempts and 27th in rushing touchdowns. You get the drift.

Marchibroda spent the past off-season installing a two-back alignment designed to produce the jarring ground game many winning teams feature, but it hasn't materialized at all.

What's gone wrong? A combination of factors.

Foremost is the lack of blocking. The offensive line has struggled. Tackle Jonathan Ogden and guard Jeff Blackshear have played well, and Wally Williams, moving to center today, is coming around. But tackle Orlando Brown is in a funk, center Jeff Mitchell is benched and the holes Bam Morris ran through haven't opened nearly as often.

Unwilling to take all the blame, the linemen have grumbled privately and sometimes publicly about the play-calling. They have a point. The Ravens haven't attempted or completed enough downfield passes to "stretch" opposing defenses, which crowd the line and jam the run when they don't have to worry about getting beat deep.

Pressed to explain the lack of downfield passing in last Sunday's loss to the Packers, Marchibroda said that sacks of his quarterbacks precluded several attempts.

"I think we're calling enough [downfield passes]," Marchibroda said.

Not really.

Several other factors have contributed. It's no coincidence that the running game has hit bottom, averaging 62 yards per game, since tight end Eric Green suffered a ruptured air sac early in the loss to Tennessee three weeks ago. Green is probably the NFL's best blocking tight end.

The tight end and fullback are key blockers in the running game Marchibroda installed, and with Green having been out and starting fullback Roosevelt Potts having lost his job to Kenyon Cotton as of today, you can see a problem existed.

Green's return, expected today, should make a difference.

It also hasn't helped that the Ravens have been behind so often lately, forcing them to forfeit the run and start passing to try to catch up.

The Packers had them down by two touchdowns in the first quarter, the Oilers by a touchdown at halftime. Getting a lead allows an offense to relax and concentrate on developing the run, but the Ravens have seldom been in that position.

One factor that hasn't been a problem is the play of halfback Priest Holmes. Marchibroda was criticized for starting an untested second-year player instead of veteran Errict Rhett, but Holmes has averaged 4.3 yards on 81 carries, caught a team-high 28 passes and shown flashes of game-breaking ability.

No, he hasn't done a lot since his big game against the Bengals last month, but you can't fault him when the blocking, play-calling and other factors have conspired to limit his effectiveness.

And just watching him burst through a hole on a 15-yard gain against the Packers was enough to make you want to see more.

There's a sense of a new beginning today, with Harbaugh back in the lineup, Williams back at center and Green back on the field. Who knows if it will make any difference? But it can't hurt that the team's more experienced players are back at their customary positions. The offense certainly can't do any worse.

It might be too late already, with surprising teams such as the Raiders and Bills having jumped ahead of the Ravens in the race for playoff berths.

But there's at least a sliver of hope of coming back from a 3-5 hole, and no hope of coming back from 2-6, so it's a day to win, or else.

And forgetting about records, playoff implications and whatever else might be at stake today, what the Ravens really need to do is play a quality game for a change, after a month of stinkers. They need to show some life, beat someone and give the fans at Camden Yards a reason to cheer.

There's little hope of it happening unless they run the ball, like real teams do.

Pub Date: 11/01/98

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