Ravens' inconsistency on offense more worrisome than ever

Posted Jan. 04, 2011 @ 2:07 a.m.
Posted By Mike Wilkening

Though the Ravens carry a four-game winning streak into Sunday's wild-card game at Kansas City, their offense sputtered in the 13-7 win in the regular-season finale vs. Cincinnati, when Baltimore played its starters throughout and yet racked up only 199 total yards against a four-win Bengals club.

"We can't allow ourselves to go into next week and play the way that we played today," Ravens WR Derrick Mason said after the game, according to masnsports.com. "We've got to go in there clicking on all cylinders. We've got to make some things work, regardless of what is called.

"We can no longer point the finger. We've got to make it work as an offensive unit. There's no more excuses, because excuses are going to get you beat. The teams that make excuses are going to have to sit at home next week. Whatever play is called, we've got to make it work, so you can't blame (offensive coordinator) Cam (Cameron). Whatever it is, we have to make it work."

Asked about the Ravens' struggles on offense Sunday, Ravens head coach John Harbaugh said the offense needed to execute better, both in the running game and the passing game.

"The good news is, after watching it — because I was disappointed last night, I think I said something in the press conference about it — I really think we are really close," Harbaugh said. "I watch our offense every single day in practice, and I know how good we are — can be — and how close we are to being really good. We have really talented players and really talented coaches who are working real hard to be really good. And, they've won 12 games playing complementary football. That's the bottom line.

"And still, we can be a much more potent offense. I see it in practice. Friday's practice was as a good a practice as you're ever going to see. So, that's there, and I want it to translate to Sunday.

"How do we get it to translate to Sunday? That's what we're working on as coaches to do. I know that's a big roundabout answer, but it's the most honest one I can give you. [If] you keep chopping wood, you keep coaching, you keep practicing hard, we'll break out and play good offense. That's a certainty."

Overall, the Ravens have been held to 269 yards or fewer in four of the last five games. During their four-game winning streak, they have not exceeded 190 net yards passing in any game, and they were held to just 101 net passing yards Sunday.

The PFW spin

The Ravens' postseason hopes have been dashed by ineffective offensive play before, so any such fears about this Baltimore team falling early for that same reason are heightened, especially when facing a Chiefs team with an offense that has racked up 400 yards or more seven times this season.

The Ravens, by contrast, have exceeded 400 yards just twice and not since Week Nine.

This is a balanced offense, with 531 pass drop-backs vs. 487 rushes, and and both aspects of the attack have impressed at points this season, with the passing game playing best in the first three-quarters of the season and the running game keying an important win vs. New Orleans in Week 15. However, the Ravens have struggled both to open holes in the running game (3.76 ypc) and protect QB Joe Flacco, who has been sacked 40 times. They have not fared very well in the red zone, with just 25 TDs in 51 trips inside the opposition 20.

Most of all, the Ravens have never given the impression that they have ever quite reached their potential on offense. We have seen flashes, especially earlier in the campaign, but this is an offense that can be a little frustrating to watch.

Harbaugh may be right — this could be an offense ready to explode. But if it isn't, the Ravens could be quite vulnerable. Their defense can't carry them alone. A series of big plays from the "D," from Josh Wilson's game-winning pick at Houston in Week 14 to FS Ed Reed's two picks Sunday, have helped carry them down the stretch, but these Ravens give up more yards than we're accustomed to seeing them surrender. They are allowing 318.9 yards per game, the most they have given up per contest since 2002, when they were in rebuilding mode. Overall, though, only the Steelers and Jets are allowing fewer yards per game among AFC playoff teams, and Baltimore is 2-1 vs. those clubs, not allowing more than 14 points in any of those three contests. So this is still a defense in which to be confident.

But what about the offense?

The closest scrutiny as the posteason begins will be on Flacco, who's 57-of-120 for 660 yards with one touchdown pass and six interceptions in five playoff starts, three in 2008 and two in '09. Flacco was a rookie in '08 and playing hurt a season ago. But now, in his third season, after perhaps the best regular season of his career (25 TDs, 10 interceptions, 93.6 QB rating), is when the most will be expected of him.

Cameron's play-calling will be watched closely, too. Can he push the right buttons with this offense at just the right time of the year? And can the Ravens begin to get WR Anquan Boldin — who has a paltry five catches for 26 yards in the last three games — more involved? He's been targeted just nine times in that span.

Remember when the concern was whether the Ravens could score enough to win playoff games? Well, those worries haven't completely gone away. The difference now is these Ravens have a more talented offense than in years past. It's a puzzling group, one tough to write off but clearly a unit still trying to hit its stride as the single-elimination games begin.