Can the Ravens develop a running game that can carry them deep into the playoffs? That's the team's burning question for the NFL playoffs, which begin today.
There are hardly any other issues to be overly concerned about with the Ravens. Over the 16-game schedule, they have become a complete and balanced team. The quarterback play has improved and the team has developed a vertical passing game. Ovie Mughelli has established himself as a good fullback, and the offensive line play has been good despite several injuries.
There are still suspect areas like the middle of the offensive line, pass coverage in the secondary and the return game on special teams, but every team has weaknesses. But these aren't glaring anymore, and they're hardly overwhelming. So if the Ravens want to take their dominance to another level, the running game has to improve.
The theory is that a team that can't run can't win a championship, and it has history on its side going back to the first Super Bowl winners, the Green Bay Packers in 1967, to last year's champions, the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Ravens have won 13 games this season with the No. 25-ranked rushing attack in the league. Imagine if they had a stronger running game.
The word unbeatable comes to mind.
"Wow. A running game with the defense and passing game they already have? That would be scary," said a former player from the Ravens' 2000 team who is now with another team.
It's definitely an area of some concern for the Ravens, and for several reasons. Indianapolis has the worst run defense in the league, and the best way to keep quarterback Peyton Manning and the Colts' passing offense off the field is by running the ball and controlling the time of possession.
New England and San Diego play the run well, but if the Ravens can sustain a running game, it will help their passing game, which is predicated on play-action. A strong running game also would give the Ravens' No. 1-ranked defense more rest.
The Ravens have controlled some games with short passes this season, but coaches like Bill Belichick and Marty Schottenheimer will take that away, just as Cincinnati coach Marvin Lewis did in the Bengals' second game against the Ravens this season.
In some ways, it's ironic that the Ravens have struggled running the ball. A year ago, and at the beginning of this season, opposing teams were stacking the line of scrimmage. They wanted to take running back Jamal Lewis out of the game and force quarterbacks Kyle Boller and Steve McNair to beat them. That doesn't happen a lot anymore. The offense is more balanced and McNair has shown he can still beat teams with his arm.
This is the perfect time to run.
The Ravens have tried, averaging 102.3 rushing yards a game. And sometimes, they're just an arm tackle or two away from Lewis breaking a 30- or 40-yard run, but that's not enough. The Ravens really need to be more effective, especially inside the opponent's 20-yard line. Sunday against the Buffalo Bills, the Ravens had to settle for four field goals by Matt Stover.
"You get down that far, you've got to finish it off, got to score points in the playoffs because these are the best teams," Mughelli said.
There are a number of reasons for the lack of success. Those arm tackles that bring Lewis down now couldn't a few years ago. The Ravens' running scheme is pretty simplistic. There aren't a lot of traps and misdirection plays that require offensive linemen to block in space. It's basic, straight-ahead stuff.
Lewis has never been a straight-ahead runner, but one who stutter-steps and picks his hole. He was successful in the past because he had enough power and acceleration to fit the scheme. The problem now is he appears to be a step slower and more hesitant. In his best days in Denver, backup Mike Anderson was a better fit for this scheme because he just makes one cut and goes.
Any team that matches up physically with the Ravens on the line of scrimmage and is disciplined enough to stay in its lanes can win because that shuts down the cutback lanes.
Despite the troubles, the Ravens have succeeded. They have the league's 17th-ranked offense, averaging 317 yards a game. The Ravens have been one-dimensional for the past eight years, but are more balanced now than ever as far as run vs. pass.
They have good possession-type receivers in Derrick Mason and Mark Clayton, a deep threat in Demetrius Williams and a go-to tight end inside the red zone in Todd Heap.
They have a tough, unflappable veteran quarterback in McNair and the league's top defense. Now, if they can get the running game revved up just a bit more, they might take a long ride deep into the postseason.
Read Mike Preston's Ravens Central blog at www.baltimoresun.com/ravenscentral.