Ray Rice - Baltimore Ravens running back

Prior to the start of the 2013 season, there was much conjecture about the Baltimore offense. Most of the questions had to do with the passing game:

Who would step up among the receivers and tight ends after the losses of Anquan Boldin and Dennis Pitta?

Would Joe Flacco be able to justify his record-setting deal?

Would offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell change the offense and implement more of the passing schemes used by his Colts’ offenses?

Once the preseason started, another question started to surface that has continued to overshadow those involving the Ravens aerial attack. What the heck happened to the running game?

Through 8 games one thing has become incredibly clear: the Ravens cannot run the ball. The stats are simply putrid:

  • A team average of 71.6 rushing yards per game, with a record-setting (for futility) 2.8 yards per rush attempt.
  • Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce are each averaging only 2.7 yards per rush individually and have combined for only 5 rushing touchdowns.

The Baltimore offensive line has become public enemy number one and for good reason.

The lack of push up front is a constant problem and gives absolutely no room to run for either Rice or Pierce. Holes are virtually nonexistent and it almost seems like the opposing defense knows when the Ravens are running, as a defender is on the running back almost as soon as he receives the handoff.

The really depressing thing is that there doesn’t seem to be much improvement on the horizon. Left guard Kelechi Osemele  will be going on IR any moment now with a back injury, leaving a major hole in the line. Osemele was a huge key for the line and it was becoming more and more obvious that his back was not letting him play up to the standard he set for himself as a rookie.

Right guard Marshall Yanda has also not been himself and is likely not 100% after having should surgery in the offseason. While Yanda is as tough as they come and a Pro Bowler when healthy, his performance this season has been below par for what fans have grown to expect. With the pounding he takes week after week, I just don’t see how we can expect to see the old Yanda until ’14.

Michael Oher is also not having a good year at right tackle, but unlike Yanda and Osemele, there doesn’t appear to be a major injury holding him back. Like Yanda, Oher is as tough as they come, so he may be dealing with a lingering injury that hasn’t been disclosed. With that said, Oher is also in a contract year, so there is also a chance he has let the thoughts of securing his next deal disrupt his focus.

The rest of the line is a crapshoot. Gino Gradkowski has been underwhelming in his first year as the starting Center. Left tackle Eugene Monroe has only been with the team about a month and is still adjusting to the playbook and his teammates. Osemele’s replacement at left guard, AQ Shipley, looked passable in his start last week against the Browns, but is nothing close to a savior for the line.

While the offensive line gets the lion’s share of the blame in my book, the running backs aren’t completely off the hook either. Whether it’s lingering injuries or indecisiveness, Rice and Pierce have shown almost no burst or assertiveness when they have the ball in their hands. They simply aren’t performing at the level we have come to expect.

At this point the question in my mind is not, “When will the running game turn the corner?”  The real question has become, “Where is rock bottom?”  The sad answer is that I’m not sure we’ve seen it yet.

Five of the Ravens’ remaining 8 opponents (including the Bengals twice) are in the top 15 in rush defense. Add to that the Steelers, who only allowed the Ravens to rush for 82 yards in their first meeting and the outlook is bleak for the running game.

The game I have circled as the potential rock bottom game is November 24 against the Jets. New York is allowing a paltry 73.8 rushing yards per game and has a Defensive Player of the Year candidate in big defensive tackle Muhammad Wilkerson. It may not be a welcome return visit by Rex Ryan when he comes back to M&T Bank Stadium.

So what can the Ravens do? I have no idea. I’m just waiting for rock bottom, because at least at that point there is nowhere to go but up.