Priority No. 1 for Ravens: Fixing the running game

Offense's problems stemmed from inability to move ball on ground, leaders agree

February 12, 2011|By Jamison Hensley, The Baltimore Sun

At a time when this year's Super Bowl teams ignored the running game in record-setting fashion, the Ravens' top priority for next season is fixing their ground attack.

The consensus of the Ravens' brain trust — from owner Steve Bisciotti to general manager Ozzie Newsome to coach John Harbaugh — is that the failures of the offense shouldn't be blamed on offensive coordinator Cam Cameron but the inability to run the ball down the throats of defenses as in previous years.

The Ravens went from fifth-best in the NFL in yards per carry (4.7) in 2009 to the fifth-worst (3.8) in 2010.

"If I was an objective observer, I would say the run game let us down," Bisciotti said after the season.

The decline of the rushing production isn't for a lack of trying. The Ravens ran the ball 487 times, the sixth-most in the NFL. That's 19 more times than in 2009, but they gained 169 fewer rushing yards and scored 11 fewer rushing touchdowns.

Those numbers are considered unacceptable with three former Pro Bowl players in the backfield (Ray Rice, Willis McGahee and Le'Ron McClain) and four high draft picks (Michael Oher, Ben Grubbs, Chris Chester and Marshal Yanda) starting on the offensive line.

"We need to run the ball better," Harbaugh said. "If we run the ball better and we're more physical, that opens a lot of possibilities from the passing game, play-calling, gives guys a chance to make plays across the board. So, if I was going to say one thing, I'd say that would be the No. 1 thing we need to focus on going forward."

A successful running game hasn't translated to a successful season in today's game. Only two of the top seven teams in yards-per-carry made the playoffs (Philadelphia and Kansas City) and none made it past the wild-card round. In the Super Bowl, the Green Bay Packers and the Pittsburgh Steelers combined for the fewest rushing attempts (36) in the history of the game.

But Ravens officials believe that the ground game is the key to turning around an offense the fell to 22nd in total yards and 16th in points scored.

"I go back to our inability to run the football effectively for the whole year," Newsome said. "I think that affected our passing game. I think that affected our production in all aspects of it. We will run the football better next year."

The focus for revitalizing the running game appears to be the offensive line. The Ravens' first coaching change this offseason was firing offensive line coach John Matsko and promoting assistant Andy Moeller.

The next step is configuring the lineup. With offensive tackle Jared Gaither sidelined the entire season with a back injury, the Ravens were forced to flip Oher from the right side to the left (a move they had been considering in the offseason already), shift Yanda from right guard to tackle and put backup center Chester at right guard.

The Ravens' preference is to move Yanda back to guard.

"I think that's his position," Harbaugh said. "He's a dominant puller. He's physical. If you can put a nice, big right tackle next to him, that would really help."

The Ravens had that in 2009 with Yanda and Oher on the right side. Perhaps the biggest decision is whether to shift Oher back to right tackle or keep him on the left side.

Last season, Oher didn't seem comfortable at left tackle — "The Blind Side" — and committed eight false starts and two holding penalties.

"I think Michael Oher can play either tackle," Harbaugh said. "What side Mike winds up playing depends on who else is in the mix. I think he had a very good second year. I think the sky's the limit for Michael."

If Bisciotti has his way again, the Ravens' running game will be much improved next season. After the 2009 season, he expressed concern in the high number of penalties. This season, the Ravens were one shy of tying the team record for fewest penalties.

When asked about his biggest disappointment in 2010, he pointed squarely at the running game.

"Maybe we took that for granted," Bisciotti said. "When you're getting (4.7) yards per carry, it's the staple of your offense. The next thing you know, we're not getting that. It's not a given. And why we didn't do it? We need to go back to the drawing board."

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