Is the Ravens' Running Game Finally Back?

Andrea HangstFeatured Columnist IVNovember 19, 2013

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The Baltimore Ravens fell in overtime to the Chicago Bears on Sunday, 23-20. That's not good news for the defending Super Bowl champions, whose 4-6 record puts them in last place in the AFC North.

However, there was one positive development that came from the loss—the return of a run game. The Ravens rushed for 174 yards against the Bears, the most rushing yards the team has had all season and just the second time it broke 100 rushing yards this year. 

Running back Ray Rice, who has had a disappointing season thus far thanks to a lingering hip flexor injury, rushed 25 times for 131 yards and a touchdown, giving him a 5.2 yards-per-carry average. It was his best performance of the year—his previous top rushing total was 74 yards in Week 4—bringing his rushing yards on the year to 420. 

The hope for the Ravens is that this is part of a trend and not a result of simply playing the NFL's 31st-ranked run defense, with the Bears giving up an average of 133.9 rushing yards on the ground.

A strong run game is how the Ravens are able to make up for quarterback Joe Flacco's inconsistencies (17-of-31 for 162 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions against Chicago), and balance, generally, is necessary for a team to field a truly effective offense. The Ravens must find ways to assure that this wasn't a one-time thing and that Rice is back to form.

Despite the good rushing performance in Chicago, the Ravens still rank just 27th in rushing yards per game at 83.2, down significantly from the 123.5 they averaged last season. It's not for lack of trying, either—the Ravens rank 16th in average rushing attempts per game, with 27.7.

They have only six rushing touchdowns on the year and only three runs of 20 or more yards, compared to 17 rushing touchdowns and 10 rushes of 20 or more yards in 2012. And it's not just Rice and his injured hip that has resulted in such a decrease in production. Fellow back Bernard Pierce, who is healthy, has just 279 yards on his 103 carries—a 2.7 yards-per-carry average—while he had 532 yards on his 108 carries last year, with a 4.9 yards-per-carry average.

Baltimore's offensive line hasn't been as good at run blocking as in years past.
Baltimore's offensive line hasn't been as good at run blocking as in years past.Matt Sullivan/Getty Images

When two backs who were very productive in the previous season have such a decline in the next, something other than the backs themselves are to blame. In the Ravens' case, it would be the run blocking, which Pro Football Focus (subscription required) ranks 29th in the league and Football Outsiders ranks 31st. 

What changed in Week 11 is that the run blocking was significantly improved, especially for the offensive line. Left tackle Eugene Monroe, left guard A.Q. Shipley, center Gino Gradkowski and right guard Marshal Yanda all had positive run-blocking ratings from Pro Football Focus. Right tackle Michael Oher marginally underperformed with a grade of minus-0.4.

These are improvements over most of the performances of these linemen in run blocking on the season. Monroe and Yanda have season-long positive ratings of plus-3.0 and plus-6.9, respectively, but Gradkowski has a run-blocking rating of an even zero, Shipley's is minus-8.1 and Oher's is minus-11.6.

Either Gradkowski, Shipley and Oher finally mastered the art of run blocking in Week 11, or it indeed was the Bears' problems stopping the run that produced their good day. But even if the latter is the case, it doesn't mean the Ravens have to go back to averaging three yards per carry in Week 12 and beyond.

There's the matter of Rice's health, which seems to be as good as it's been all season long. Even without great blocking from his linemen (and fullback Vonta Leach, who has been uncharacteristically poor as a run-blocker, with a minus-7.3 rating on the year), this means he'll be more shifty and flexible, making him more capable of creating yardage on his own. 

Upcoming Ravens' Opponents vs. the Run
WeekTeamRush YPGRank

There is also the fact that the Ravens face a few more run-deficient defenses to round out their season. Though they have contests against three top-10 run defenses—the New York Jets, Detroit Lions and Cincinnati Bengals—they also face off against the Pittsburgh Steelers (26th against the run), the Minnesota Vikings (14th against the run) and the New England Patriots (29th against the run). 

If they can take advantage of these opportunities, they should have at least two, if not three, games in which Rice can break the 100-yard mark. And considering the Ravens have smartly not abandoned the run despite the relatively few yards they've produced this year, they have chances to run well even against teams typically stingy with yards on the ground.

Though the Ravens are 4-6 and at the bottom of the AFC North standings thanks to the Cleveland Browns and Pittsburgh Steelers holding playoff tiebreak advantage over them, they aren't out of the postseason race just yet. One way they can stay in it is to have more rushing performances like the one they did against the Bears.

Flacco is the type of quarterback who needs help from his run game and his defense to play his best football. The Ravens have no choice but to stay the course with running the ball, work harder to open lanes for both Rice and Pierce and take advantage of the three rather poor run defenses they have yet to face if they are going to improve their record and have a chance to defend their Super Bowl crown.