OWINGS MILLS – The Baltimore Ravens’ once vaunted ground-and-pound running game has been downgraded lately from filet mignon to ground chuck.
The Ravens are tied for 31st in the league in average per carry, gaining just 3.6 yards per rush after averaging 4.7 yards last season.
Although Pro Bowl running back Ray Rice has manufactured a respectable season, he’s been a marked man and his numbers are down after last year’s banner season.
"We’ve got to get the chemistry back with our offensive line, we’ve just got to stick with our blocks a little longer," Rice said. "Backs, we’ve got to trust. We’ve got to be patient. The time is now being that we want to accomplish certain things toward the end of the year and get this late-season push for the playoffs. The time is now to get it corrected.
"The carries and the average might be down, but I think as far as production, I’ve maxed out with the looks I’ve been getting, You might say the numbers are down, but if you look at where I’m at now and where I was last year, it’s not that far off, even though there’s an extra target on me."
The major difference has been an absence of long runs as the home run threat has disappeared from the Ravens’ offense.
Rice ranks 13th in the NFL in rushing with 844 yards and is averaging four yards per carry. He has only topped the century mark once and has just one 30-yard run.
He’s on pace for 1,125 yards, averaging 70.3 rushing yards per game.
With 1,301 rushing yards as an offense, to rank 16th in rushing offense the Ravens have 359 attempts. So, it hasn’t been from lack of trying.
Last season, the Ravens averaged 29.2 carries per game for a 137.5 average.
This season, they’re averaging 29.9 carries (7th most in the league) for a 108.4 average per contest.
"We’ve actually run more this year than we did last year at this time," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "Our yards per carry is probably the issue in the run game more than anything. We just have to run better, more effectively.
"It’s important because it opens up everything. If you can run effectively, it opens up the pass game, helps you protect. It all ties together. I do think to be the kind of football team that we want to be, we need to have the power part of it. We need to be a physical, powerful run team."
Last season, Rice gained a career-high 1,339 yards while averaging 5.3 yards per rush with four 100-yard games and four runs of 50 yards or longer. The Ravens featured the fifth-ranked rushing attack in the league.
Rice caught 78 passes for 702 yards. This year he has 49 receptions for 410 yards.
Although the long-distance play hasn’t been a part of the Ravens’ running game, Rice isn’t losing his patience.
"The big play hasn’t happened, but thing I can say is that the chopping at the bit and getting as many yards as I can and not forcing the issue has kept my numbers right where they’re at right now," Rice said. "I’m still heading toward a 1,000-yard season and that’ll be consecutive. The big runs will happen.
"Especially at my size, sometimes you’ve just got to take what’s there. The big play, I’m not trying to force the issue. I’m just going to continue to trust my guys and I’m sure as men we’ll get the job done."
A year ago, the Ravens had 18 runs of 20 yards or longer. This year, the backs have only four runs that long.
What’s the difference?
"It might be a track by me, or getting on a guy, staying on a guy longer," Rice said. "I had a play this week where Troy Polamalu just got me by the legs. Our receivers are doing a great job blocking down the field. Once we get into the secondary, I think it’s our job as backs to take care of those guys."
Only six teams have more carries than the Ravens.
Last year, Rice had runs of 83, 59, 50 and 33 yards.
This year, not so much with long runs of 30, 25 and 18 yards.
"When we run the ball, we have to run the ball better," quarterback Joe Flacco said. "I don’t know that we need to do it anymore or anything like that, but we need to get a little more production."
Rice rushed for 133 yards against the Denver Broncos.
Since that game, he has rushed for 88, 72, 83, 59, 65, 82 and 32 yards.
Rice mentioned the loss of offensive tackle Jared Gaither for the season with a back injury as a significant blow to the running game.
Plus, Michael Oher has moved to left tackle and Marshal Yanda has taken his place on the right side after shifting over from right guard.
"It’s tough to say," Yanda said. "Gaither’s a good player, but he’s on IR. We can’t think about it because he’s not here. We got to find a way to get it done.
"We have to be more efficient when we run the ball. We’re making it a top priority. There’s a ton of plays that are close to popping. We need to stick with it. I think those runs will come."
Rice averaged only 3.6 yards against the Pittsburgh Steelers’ top-ranked run defense as the Ravens only handed him the ball nine times.
"We need to get this running game going," Pro Bowl fullback Le’Ron McClain said. "We’re nowhere close to where we need to be. We take pride in that. We have nothing to show for it in terms of yards per carry.
"Throughout the course of the game, you’ve got to pound teams and get them three yards, five yards, six yards, seven yards. By the third quarter, they turn into 15 and 20. That’s what we haven’t been able to get done this year."
Of course, McClain was out for the Steelers game with a sprained ankle.
And his return for Monday night’s game against the Houston Texans could provide a boost to the running game.
"Having Le’Ron McClain is big," Rice said. "If we would have had him last week against Pittsburgh, our run game would have been a little difference because of his presence alone. Having the two young rookie tight ends in there against the Pittsburgh linebackers is a different scenario when Le’Ron McClain is used to blocking those kind of guys.
"Having him back, knowing that he’s going to be on the linebackers, that’s a great scenario for me. I love running behind him. I’m definitely anxious to see how the guy bounces back and gets out there this week leading in front of me. .. Running the ball is a mentality. For the past few years for this team, it’s been our mentality."