Ravens experiencing red-zone blues

Fixes needed to get offense back to its early season sizzle

December 11, 2009|By Ken Murray | ken.murray@baltsun.com

When the Ravens look all the way back to September, they can see the prolific, big-play offense they imagined they would have this season: relentless, quick-striking, explosive.

But when they roll the tape forward to November, they find ghastly miscues, goal-line implosions and botched opportunities.

Now comes the witching time of December, and if the Ravens are going to save their season, they have to clean up the mess the offense left in the red zone the past month. For all intents and purposes, the playoffs start Sunday against the Detroit Lions at M&T Bank Stadium, which is not a bad team or a bad place to stage a revival.

Clean up the mistakes in the red zone, Cam Cameron suggested Thursday, and the offense is back in sync.

"There are a lot of areas we need to improve in, but we need to take care of the football in the scoring zone," the Ravens' offensive coordinator said. "We've addressed that with our guys. We've had far too many turnovers in the scoring zone area, and when you move the ball up and down the field and you have nothing to show for it - you want three points, seven points - that's not a good thing. So we have to get that corrected first and foremost.

"And then we just have to continue to work together, execute. It's the time of the year ... where people get more familiar with you, and that's why you need to keep improving, keep getting better. That's what we're trying to do."

Two red-zone turnovers helped deal the Ravens a 27-14 loss in Green Bay on Monday night. Running back Ray Rice fumbled at the Packers' 18-yard line in the first quarter, and quarterback Joe Flacco threw an interception from the 3 in the fourth quarter.

It was reminiscent of a disastrous fourth quarter against the Indianapolis Colts on Nov. 22, when Flacco threw a critical interception at the 14-yard line in a 17-15 loss. That makes three red-zone turnovers by the Ravens in the past 10 quarters. And that would appear to be a correctable issue for the offense.

But the offensive problems run deeper than that. While the Ravens are still generating long drives and punching into the red zone with regularity, they have not run the ball or protected the quarterback well enough in the past five games.

Consider these numbers:

•In the first seven games of the season, the Ravens rushed for an average of 4.6 yards per carry and 124.8 per game, and scored 199 points, or 28.4 a game.

•In the past five weeks, they have rushed for an average of 3.6 yards per carry and 97 per game, scoring 72 points, or an average of 14.4.

That's a drop of 27 rushing yards and 14 points a game. So it's not just a red-zone problem.

This week, the Ravens recoiled at media criticism. The offensive line, one of the team's hardest-working units, took particular umbrage that it was singled out. When it was suggested to center Matt Birk that the line's hard work hadn't translated into success lately, he disagreed.

"We won last week" against Pittsburgh, Birk said. "I'm just trying to be accurate because you're painting this doom and gloom. It ain't doom and gloom in my world. You know what you do? You just keep working. If you believe in how you're doing things and how you approach your work, and you believe in the people around you ... [you] come in and work harder and play better."

Protecting Flacco better would be a good start. The second-year quarterback was sacked just 12 times over the first seven games, but has been dumped 15 times in the past five.

"I think even with that being said, the offensive line is playing more physical and we're playing more aggressive running the ball," left guard Ben Grubbs said. "We just have to be more consistent. Week in and week out, we have to let the defenses play at our speed."

The Ravens, however, played at the speed of Green Bay's defense Monday. Besides three sacks allowed, the Ravens ran the ball for just 66 yards. Coach John Harbaugh expected better.

"At times it was good, at times it wasn't," Harbaugh said of the offensive line's performance. "I think they'll tell you they're not happy about it. ... We thought we had a chance to maybe block their front a little better in the run game, and it didn't happen.

"Play to play, we were going against a really good defense and we were trading blows in there. But the turnovers just were the deciding factor for us not doing well offensively."

The good news is, the Ravens have continued to move the ball through their difficulties. They have had nine scoring drives of more than 50 yards in the past five games, and six of better than 60 yards.

"We're getting down to the red zone enough," Rice said. "Now we have to score in the red zone, and that eases a lot of things. We just have to put the mental errors aside and play football. We're getting the looks we want. Defenses obviously are playing us a little different."

Right guard Marshal Yanda echoed Birk and Grubbs in saying the only solution is to keep trying to get better.

"It's just football," he said of the breaks of the game in the red zone. "We've got to find a way to do things better down there. We're trying our best."

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