The Baltimore Ravens finally figured out the right formula to win on the road in Week 9, defeating the Cleveland Browns 25-15 by running the ball 13 more times than they passed it. Sure, that had something to do with the fact they were playing with the lead, but there's more to it than that most-simple of football strategy.
Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco has played his worst football this year on the road, and Baltimore's two losses have come when it's the visiting team. As such, its turn toward running more with Rice resulted in a victory. Though Rice wasn't productive through all four quarters—in the second and third, the Browns defense wised up to the run—the Ravens stuck with it, a lesson that should serve them well in the coming weeks.
Let's take a closer look at where things stand for the Ravens as they prepare to host the Oakland Raiders in Week 10 and try to maintain their hold on the AFC North's top spot.
The Good: Focusing on the Run Game
For the first time this season, the Ravens ran the ball more than they passed it—Flacco threw 24 passes to a total of 37 runs in Week 9. As mentioned above, this focus on the run is something the Ravens need to do more often this season, especially in road games, which haven't been Flacco's best performances.
In every road game this year, Flacco has had no more than 214 passing yards, and he was again held to a low tally against the Browns in Week 9, with 153 yards (and 145 net). Despite this trend, Rice's carries were well below 20 per game in the three road contests they played prior to Week 9—16 against the Philadelphia Eagles, 17 against the Kansas City Chiefs and nine against the Houston Texans.
Against the Browns last week, Rice rushed 25 times, for 98 yards and a touchdown. While his yards-per-carry average of 3.92 was his second-lowest of the season, the Ravens didn't stop running him. That kind of dedication to the run game is something Baltimore hadn't shown in the weeks previous and hopefully indicates a long-term adjustment to its offensive philosophy as the season heads into its most-decisive weeks.
The remainder of the Ravens' 137 yards came from seven Bernard Pierce carries netting 26 yards and a score, eight yards from fullback Vonta Leach on two carries, a four-yard direct snap run from backup quarterback Tyrod Taylor and two scrambles by Flacco, totaling one yard. It was their most productive running game on the year, and it completely bailed out Flacco and directly led to Baltimore's win.
Just because the Ravens play at home this week doesn't mean they should go back to a Flacco-heavy offensive game plan. Their opponent, the Oakland Raiders, gave up a remarkable 251 rushing yards to rookie Tampa Bay Buccaneers running back Doug Martin in Week 9, a 10 yards-per-carry average on his 25 runs.
Martin and Rice are similar running backs in both style and size, and as such, the Buccaneers have provided an excellent template for how the Ravens can attack Oakland's secondary. Granted, playing in Baltimore means we're sure to see more—and better—Flacco passing than when they are on the road, but with the run particularly causing Oakland headaches, another 25-carry day for Rice (and perhaps even more than seven for Pierce) may be more than enough for the Ravens to nab a win.
The Bad: Early-Down Pass Rush
Earlier this season, I broke down where the Ravens defense missed linebacker Terrell Suggs the most: on first and second downs, where he racked up most of his sacks in 2011. At the time, which was after three games, the Ravens had just two sacks on first downs and one on second, while Suggs had five to his name on first and four on second, making up nine of his 14 total sacks.
Since that time, the Ravens have added just one sack on each down—with the first-down sack coming via Suggs, which he picked up in his return to the field in Week 7 against the Houston Texans. Though Suggs is only two games back from his spring Achilles' tendon tear and clearly isn't going to be playing at his Defensive Player of the Year level immediately upon returning, it is interesting that Baltimore hasn't found ways to be more productive in the pass rush on those early downs in the weeks he's been gone.
To little surprise, the Ravens are most productive at getting to opposing quarterbacks on third downs. They were last year as well. It's a high-stakes down that, depending on the distance (and the team), generally produces more drop-backs as teams try to keep their drives moving, and therefore, more opportunities for pressure and sacks.
However, coming after quarterbacks successfully on first and second downs makes the eventual third down that much harder to convert—the offenses are moving backwards—and was a major reason why Baltimore had such a fierce defense last year.
The less pressure that comes at quarterbacks in early-down passing plays, the farther and the quicker they can move the ball down the field. Last year, passers opposing the Ravens knew that they'd be facing significant pressure on almost every down and had to adjust accordingly—now, with third being their predominant pressure down, the Ravens have become a more predictable and easier-to-beat defense on a down-by-down basis.
With Baltimore still struggling against the run (as well as the pass, though less so last week against the red-zone challenged Browns), it needs to get offenses on its heels and off the field as quickly as possible.
Perhaps as Suggs gets increasingly more healthy, the Ravens will have more success rushing the passer on first and second downs, but the fact that this couldn't be rectified even slightly in the weeks between their first three games and Suggs' return proves that Baltimore is still in search of solutions that don't rely so heavily on the linebacker.
What's Next: The Oakland Raiders
The 3-5 Oakland Raiders aren't a terribly challenging opponent for the Ravens this week, especially considering Baltimore plays at home. However, the Ravens cannot overlook them and inadvertently focus more of their energies on the following week's clash against the rival Pittsburgh Steelers, because an upset win can happen for any team at any time.
Clearly, with the Raiders giving up 278 rushing yards to the Buccaneers last week, the Ravens offense should ideally run the ball more than they'd normally in a home game. However, Oakland isn't too strong defensively against the pass either, giving up 245.2 passing yards per game on average. A good performance, in general, out of Baltimore's offense seems almost a given.
What the Ravens need to watch out for is Oakland's offense. It's not consistent, but it can prove dangerous—Raiders quarterback Carson Palmer threw for 414 yards and four touchdowns (as well as three interceptions) in the loss to Tampa, and Baltimore ranks just behind Oakland in terms of passing yardage allowed per game.
Expect a lot of passing out of Oakland on Sunday, especially with its top two running backs, Darren McFadden and Mike Goodson, suffering from high ankle sprains. However, the Raiders will still likely try to run the ball with anyone they can, only because the Ravens are still struggling defensively against practically every rusher they've faced this year.
With Baltimore's defensive problems still not fixed, it will be hard work to avoid the upset this week, even though it has the comfort of home and an inconsistent Raiders team coming to visit. It's a game the Ravens should win, however.