With Passing Game Struggling, Ravens Will Lean on Rushing Attack vs. Bills

Andrea HangstFeatured Columnist IVSeptember 28, 2013

Bernard Pierce and the run game needs to lead the way on offense for the Ravens this week.
Bernard Pierce and the run game needs to lead the way on offense for the Ravens this week.Larry French/Getty Images

The passing game isn't what it was in 2012 for the Baltimore Ravens. It's not just trading wide receiver Anquan Boldin to the San Francisco 49ers—it's also the hip injury suffered by tight end Dennis Pitta and the MCL sprain of receiver Jacoby Jones that has the Ravens in a bad way right now.

While quarterback Joe Flacco's completion percentage of 60.5 isn't much changed from his career averages to this point, the fact that he's averaging a professional low of 6.25 yards per attempt and has thrown just three touchdowns to two interceptions through three games tells the tale of the team's struggles.

The Ravens have dropped from 12th in passing yardage in 2012 to 20th presently, with Flacco throwing for an average for 231 yards per game. Though the team handily defeated the Houston Texans 30-9 last Sunday, it wasn't because of Flacco's big arm. Defense and running the ball led to the win, and Flacco passed the ball 24 times compared to 31 total team rushes. 

Joe Flacco and his receivers have struggled to get on the same page.
Joe Flacco and his receivers have struggled to get on the same page.Rob Carr/Getty Images

The run game will be the main plan of attack for Baltimore this Sunday when the team travels to Buffalo to face the 1-2 Bills. The Bills are struggling on defense as it is, with the 417.3 yards they are giving up on average bad enough to rank them 28th in the league. Their run defense, in particular, is performing poorly; it is giving up 155 yards per game, and teams are running on the Bills an average of 36 times per game, the most in the league

Fortunately for the Ravens, their increased reliance on the run will be a perfect match for Buffalo's struggles against it on Sunday.

Baltimore's run game isn't at the top of the heap in the NFL. In fact, the Ravens rank 25th in average rushing yards per game at 77.3 per game. The rushing offenses the Bills have faced in the first three weeks rank no lower than 13th and they include the No. 2 run game in the league, which belongs to the Carolina Panthers.

However, with only three games played, it's also fair to say that the success of those three teams running against the Bills helped inflate their per-game average. In Week 1, the New England Patriots rushed for 136 yards. In Week 2, the Panthers rushed for 149 yards, and the New York Jets had 208 rushing yards against the Bills in Week 3, with 149 of those belonging to running back Bilal Powell on his 27 carries.

All signs point to Ray Rice (if he plays; he appears to be a game-time decision and seems closer to being ruled out than in, according to Matt Zenitz of the Carroll County Times) or Bernard Pierce being able to shred the Buffalo defense, which will help the Ravens' bottom line—and their fledgling passing game—immensely. 

The Ravens are down passing targets, which means that alongside deep threat Torrey Smith, they've had a combination of tight ends Ed Dickson and Dallas Clark and receivers Brandon Stokley, Marlon Brown and Tandon Doss on the field to help Flacco. Between them, these players have eight dropped passes on the year, with Dickson the worst of the bunch with three. 

Flacco does share some of the blame. According to Pro Football Focus' accuracy percentage metric (subscription required), Flacco is in the middle of the pack, ranking 17th with an accuracy percentage of 71.4.

It was at 68.0 last year, however, a sign that the weekly inconsistencies with Flacco's game are still with him. When that works in concert with a group of underperforming receivers, it's not hard to see why Baltimore's passing game hasn't been all that great so far this year.

Facing a weak run defense like Buffalo's, therefore, couldn't have come at a better time. It's clear that the entire Baltimore offense is a work in progress, but the passing game in particular needs more attention. While that happens, the Ravens can at least lean on their running backs.

Running the ball well exploits a major Buffalo defensive weakness and can set up deep play-action passes to Torrey Smith.
Running the ball well exploits a major Buffalo defensive weakness and can set up deep play-action passes to Torrey Smith.Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

Rice has 72 rushing yards and a touchdown on his 25 carries, while Pierce has earned 144 yards and two scores on his 52 attempts. While their sub-three yards per-carry averages aren't impressive, it also doesn't mean the Ravens can give up running the ball.

The more the Ravens run—and the more success they have with it—the more Flacco can then start opening up the passing game, using play-action to get the ball deep to Smith. There are ways to make the passing game look better all while running the ball against a defense vulnerable to it. 

Helping matters is the fact that two key Buffalo cornerbacks, Stephon Gilmore and Ron Brooks, won't be playing on Sunday, per Matt Vensel of the Baltimore Sun. Using the run to set up the pass should be a very effective strategy for the Ravens this week. 

Like on defense, one key to getting the offense and run game on track is about chemistry and confidence. Baltimore's new-look defense took until Week 3 to look like a cohesive unit and, based on how it held the Houston Texans to just nine points last week, seems to be inching closer to becoming one of the better groups in the league. 

For the offense to turn around, the Ravens need to lean on their strengths—the run game, the ability for Flacco to get the ball deep to Smith and Brown—while the rest of their receivers get up to speed with each other and their quarterback. Through three games, it's apparent that few of Flacco's options are reliable, especially as reliable as their running backs. 

Eventually, the Ravens need to get their passing game in order. The poor passes and the drops need to stop if the team is to continue holding onto the top spot in the AFC North, let alone make another serious run at a Super Bowl championship.

But, for this week, the Ravens should be in good shape letting their run game lead the way against a Bills defense that has spent its last three games struggling to stop it.