Despite never once trailing in points and despite running back Ray Rice averaging 4.9 yards per carry in the first half and 6.5 yards per carry once the game was over, they chose to run the ball a total of just 21 times, with only 12 of those carries belonging to Rice, for 78 yards. Rice had zero fourth-quarter carries in the game, with the Ravens opting to pass, pass, pass the ball, and the result was a 23-20 loss.
Rice has had 20 or more carries in only four games this season and over 100 rushing yards just twice. He currently ranks 13th in total carries and 12th in yards; last year, he was third in rushing yards and second in attempts. For whatever reason, the Ravens have chosen to rely more heavily on the arm of quarterback Joe Flacco and their passing game, and now that the season heads into the final weeks, we're seeing more clearly what a mistake this can be.
Though the Ravens have just three losses this season thanks in part to an uptick in Flacco's passing production, particularly at home, falling to the Steelers in Week 13 makes it clear just how important it is that they run the ball. Not every home game will be a good day at the office for Flacco, and the Ravens must increase their commitment to the run as a response rather than sticking with the same game plan and hope that it somehow produces better results.
In the next three weeks, the Ravens have two home games, and both of them are critical to their postseason positioning as well as being simply difficult contests. In Week 15, they host the Denver Broncos and then the New York Giants in the following week. Even this week's game, at the Washington Redskins, will require the Ravens to do more running if they want to win. It eats up time, clearly produces results and makes Baltimore's offense less one-dimensional and thus, less predictable.
The Ravens could, and should, have had more than the 111 total rushing yards against the Steelers in Week 13, and only with increased carries for Rice (as well as for Bernard Pierce) will they be able to pull off victories in their remaining games and into the postseason. The Steelers defense wasn't stopping the run—the Ravens' game plan was.
It's as though somewhere between last season and this, wires were crossed in the head of offensive coordinator Cam Cameron. While the NFL has become an increasingly pass-dependent league, that doesn't automatically translate into the Ravens needing to pass the ball more. It's all about strengths, and more importantly, it's about balance whenever possible.
Teams that rely on passing the ball constantly are doing so because they have a quarterback capable of being reliably accurate on a week-by-week, down-by-down basis and have a group of receivers just as reliable catching his passes. They may not necessarily have a good enough run game to have a balance between running plays and passing ones, and handoffs are less important and aren't expected to produce significant results.
Baltimore, however, have a well-balanced offense if Cameron would just even out the run and pass plays. Balance is the hallmark of winning teams—even the New England Patriots run the ball well—and the Ravens are capable of it, even if their coaching somehow doesn't see it.
The Ravens don't need to pass the ball as heavily has they have been this season, and certainly not as much as they did in the Steelers loss (34 pass plays, 21 rush). Rice and Pierce are legitimate weapons who can often give the Ravens just as many yards on the ground as they'd get in a pass completion, especially when Flacco is having trouble going deep (as he did last week).
The latter part of the season, as well as the playoffs, is traditionally a time for teams to dust off their run games and take the battle to the trenches rather than to the skies. Hopefully Cameron and the Ravens get that memo soon, because their loss last week can be traced to their unwillingness to unleash the run. It's possible that if they don't change course soon, they could lose more games directly because Rice doesn't get the carries that he's earned.
And "earned" is used literally here—Rice signed a $40 million deal in the offseason, giving him star running back cash because of how well he's played in his time in Baltimore thus far. He should be given star running back carries week after week—the Ravens are compensating Rice financially, and he compensates the Ravens right back by producing on the field.
But Cameron's play calling seems to be focused on limiting their best offensive weapon, which is a completely backwards approach, something few other coordinators in the league would even imagine doing.
Someone—head coach Jim Harbaugh, Rice himself, the offensive line, anyone—needs to tell Cameron that limiting Rice's carries to a mere 12, that taking him completely out of the fourth-quarter plan when the game is so close, that stubbornly calling pass plays when it's clearly not working is no longer acceptable. In fact, it's become a liability.
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