The Ravens now one-dimensional in a different way

November 14, 2011|By Matt Vensel

Baltimore’s offensive identity crisis appears to have been resolved, but that is not necessarily a good thing.

As the NFL has gone pass-happy and quarterbacks across the league are putting up prolific passing numbers -- well, except for Tim Tebow in Denver, who completed two passes in a win Sunday -- the Ravens have refused to be fossilized in football’s prehistoric era. Quarterback Joe Flacco chucked 150 passes the past three games, completing 88 of them. Meanwhile, Flacco put the ball into the belly of running back Ray Rice just 41 times.

Throwing the ball all over the place was necessary in the Week 8 win over the Arizona Cardinals. The Ravens trailed by 21 points in the second quarter. They fueled their comeback by using the Diesel package -- which is two wide receivers, two tight ends and a running back -- and throwing often out of the shotgun formation.

The Ravens stuck with that script against the Pittsburgh Steelers, and Flacco completed 28 of his 47 attempts. The last of those passes dropped into Torrey Smith’s arms for the go-ahead touchdown with eight seconds left.

But in Sunday’s 22-17 loss to the Seattle Seahawks -- one in which Flacco wasn’t at his sharpest -- the Ravens forgot about their running attack altogether. Rice got just five carries, even though the Ravens never trailed by more than two scores. He was so frustrated, presumably because of his reduced role in the disappointing loss, that he didn’t answer questions from reporters afterward because he didn’t want to say something negative.

Count Seahawks coach Pete Carroll as one guy who was happy the Ravens reduced Rice’s role.

“I was kind of hoping that it would go like this, where they wouldn't feature [the run] as much [and] they wouldn't be balanced out,” he said. “We got up enough and at halftime, they decided they were going to throw the football, so that we didn't see much of the running game at all. … I thought that helped us a little bit."

Whether you like it or not, this is how Cam Cameron wants his offense to operate, even though Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti and coach John Harbaugh both said in the offseason that they would get back to running the ball. General manager Ozzie Newsome also said it -- not with his words, but with the signing of Vonta Leach.

This leaves the offense in personnel limbo. The Ravens have a Pro Bowl running back in Ray Rice, who will be a free agent at season’s end. They have a Pro Bowl fullback in Leach who isn’t being fully utilized. The offensive line, with grinders like Marshal Yanda and Michael Oher, is better suited to be pushing people backwards. And then there’s Flacco, who isn’t yet consistent enough to be throwing the ball 50 times each and every week.

But the Ravens have been heading this way the past two offseasons. They traded for Anquan Boldin before last season. They selected pass-catching tight ends Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta in the 2010 draft. They spent a 2011 second-round pick on Smith (and a fourth-rounder on Tandon Doss) and later acquired Lee Evans.

That doesn’t mean their run game should go the way of the dinosaurs, with Cameron playing the role of meteor.

The shotgun should continue to be a staple of this offense because you have to cater to your quarterback, but the Ravens must find a way to get Rice running effectively out of that formation or they need to switch gears throughout the game so he isn’t wasted. Obviously, things change when you fall behind by a couple of scores, but that might not have happened Sunday had Rice received more than four carries in the first half.

“We understand that we're going to be the target of a lot of criticism,” Harbaugh said Sunday (he was speaking generally about the loss, though he will be asked to answer specific questions about the offense on Monday).

The Ravens will be in a tough spot at season’s end. Rice will hit the open market unless the Ravens place the franchise tag on him and Flacco will again be positioning himself for a monster contract extension to remain in Baltimore. Should the Ravens give Rice big money, too, if they are only giving him several carries a game?

That, of course, is a worry for another day, one that will come presumably after at least one playoff game.

For now, the concern should be figuring out how to work Rice back into a one-dimensional offense. It’s nice the Ravens have finally figured out their identity. But the Seahawks and future opponents have figured it out as well.

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