Ravens running back Willis McGahee flexes after scoring against… (Baltimore Sun photo by Karl…)
In the NFL, the red zone — that sliver of the field located between the 20-yard line and the end zone — is treated as hallowed ground, a doorstep to touchdowns and potential wins.
The Ravens have been regular visitors to that sanctuary, but lately, their prayers have gone unheeded.
The offense is tied for 23rd in the league in red-zone efficiency. Both the Ravens and Cincinnati Bengals have converted 42.9 percent of their trips inside opponents' 20 into touchdowns.
That's a far cry from the Detroit Lions' NFL-leading 70.8 percent success rate. Detroit has registered 17 touchdowns in 24 trips to the red zone. And the Atlanta Falcons, the Ravens' opponent Thursday night, has posted 17 touchdowns in 30 chances, including 7-of-8 in their last two games.
The Ravens, who have scored 12 touchdowns in 28 opportunities, had one of their worst showings of the season Sunday when the offense managed just one touchdown in seven chances in an eventual 26-10 victory over the Miami Dolphins.
That outing dropped the team from 16th in the NFL rankings. Prior to Sunday, the Ravens had scored a touchdown every 6.2 plays. After Sunday, their average jumped to 7.5.
The next day, coach John Harbaugh acknowledged the offense's struggles in the red zone.
"I think it's just execution," he said. "We can do a better job. Don't have penalties down there. We want to complete passes. We had a couple opportunities to complete some balls that would have been scores. We could have run the ball better. Miami did a nice job."
Exploiting defenses in the red zone can be an arduous task. With a shrinking amount of room to operate with, offenses must find matchups or gaps to take advantage of, and that's not easy when as many as eight defenders are dropping back to stonewall any intrusion into the end zone.
"It's sort of like playing arena football because of how condensed the field is," running back Ray Rice said. "You've got to be precise down there. The one thing about the red zone that I've learned is that a yard is a yard is a yard. You've got to take everything that you get down there. And the one thing you want to leave the red zone with is points — whether it's a field goal or [a touchdown]. But obviously, you want to score touchdowns, and that's a big thing we've got to emphasize."
The Ravens were undone Sunday by untimely penalties, three of which effectively stalled drives inside the Dolphins' 20. A third-and-goal from the 15 in the second quarter became even more unwieldy when quarterback Joe Flacco couldn't get the play called before the 35-second play clock hit zero.
A third-and-6 from the 9 also in the second quarter grew 5 yards longer after tight end Todd Heap moved early, and any thought of going for the end zone on fourth-and-goal from the 1 in the final period was dashed when the offense was cited for delay of game again.
"I think you saw that we hurt ourselves with penalties. I think that was the main reason," Flacco said. "We kind of got ourselves out of sync a little bit. Luckily, we had enough chances and scored enough points and our defense held them up pretty good that we won the game. But that can't happen if we're going to continue to beat good teams. But I think the main thing is, we hurt ourselves with the penalties."
The Ravens were also surprisingly unsuccessful on short-yardage plays inside the red zone. Fullback Le'Ron McClain was stuffed by Miami linebacker Karlos Dansby on third-and-1 from the 7 in the second quarter.
In the fourth quarter, Rice was stopped a yard short of a first down on third-and-three from the 5, and running back Willis McGahee picked up 4 yards on third-and-goal from the 5.
"Goal line is something that, in the past, we've been physical down there," Rice said. "This year, we've just got to do a little better job of doing the little things execution-wise, not letting defenders go through. Our offensive line, [offensive coordinator] Cam [Cameron], everybody else putting it together, and we're just trying to get down there and relish our opportunities down there. And I think we'll do a better job of that. We're definitely trying to get it started this week, but as the season goes on, we definitely have to do a better job of that."
At least the Ravens' trips to the red zone weren't fruitless. Aside from a botched hold by Sam Koch in the second quarter and a pulled 37-yard field goal by Billy Cundiff in the third period, the offense did score 19 of its 26 points from inside the Dolphins' 20.
Getting points, even if they come from field goals, is the most important result, according to wide receiver Anquan Boldin.
"In football, you have to be smart," he said. "It just depends on the situation. You don't want to go down there, throw the ball, throw an interception, and they return it for a touchdown. Now instead of a two-possession game, you're tied up. So you have to be smart when making decisions like that."