With running backs like Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce on the roster and an ongoing struggle to find the right (and healthy) receiving weapons for quarterback Joe Flacco, it would make sense that the Baltimore Ravens not only run the ball often but also well in the preseason to get ready for the challenges ahead in the regular season.
However, perplexingly, this is not the case.
Through three preseason games, Rice has carried the ball 27 times for 79 yards, which amounts to an average of 2.9 yards per carry. Pierce has 13 carries for 39 yards, giving him an average of 3.0 yards yards per carry.
When the two backs' longest rushes (Rice for 15 yards and Pierce for 20) are taken out of their totals, their respective per-carry averages dip to 2.5 and 1.9 yards.
In total, the Ravens have 104 preseason rushes for a combined 387 yards, giving them an average rush of 3.7 yards. Last year, the team's average yards per rush was 4.3, with Rice at 4.4 and Pierce at 4.9.
So what has changed?
It's not as though the Ravens aren't running as much as they are passing in the preseason. So far, Baltimore's three quarterbacks—Flacco, Tyrod Taylor, Caleb Hanie—have attempted 83 passes. That's 21 fewer passes than rushes.
It's simply that the Ravens cannot run effectively at present, not even behind the offensive line that helped them advance to a Super Bowl win just months ago.
In fact, that offensive line seems to be the reason for the Ravens' rushing problems this summer.
According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), only left tackle Bryant McKinnie and right guard Marshal Yanda (who has appeared in only one game thus far after undergoing shoulder surgery in the spring) have positive run-blocking grades, with McKinnie's at +2.1 and Yanda's at +2.0.
Left guard Kelechi Osemele has the worst run-blocking grade of the starters at -6.8.
While McKinnie's positive grade ranks him as the fourth-best run-blocking tackle of the preseason and Yanda's ranks him 10th among guards, no NFL guard has performed as poorly in the run game as Osemele.
Right tackle Michael Oher ranks 130th in run-blocking with a -2.4 grade. Centers Gino Gradkowski and A.Q. Shipley (who are battling for the starting job) have also fared poorly in the run game, garnering grades of -2.7 for Gradkowski and -1.4 for Shipley—ranking them 56th and 42nd at their position, respectively.
Ultimately, the Ravens' sum total of their run-blocking in the preseason, including from second- and third-stringers, has earned them a -25.3 grade—only four teams have been worse.
Last season, the Ravens had a grade of +14.0, good for 11th-best in the league.
Yanda is clearly a difference-maker on the line. His run-blocking grade last year was +14.8 and the highest of any member of Baltimore's offense save for fullback Vonta Leach.
Osemele's grade was also much better than it has been thus far this year, at +1.1, but he also spent the entire regular season at right tackle. Once he moved to left guard in the playoffs, it dipped to -1.0 for those four games, which may partially explain why he and the entire offensive line has struggled in the 2013 preseason.
Another key is the retirement of longtime center Matt Birk. Playoffs included, Birk's run-blocking grade was +14.4.
Gradkowski and Shipley are trying to replace him. They've been fine in pass protection, but have yet to make as positive an impact on the run game as Birk, which can also help account for the drop-off.
Though this iteration of the Ravens' starting offensive line worked wonders for Flacco's time to pass the football, it wasn't terribly effective in the playoffs in helping the run game, which we're seeing quite clearly in this year's preseason.
The decision to bring Leach back looks even smarter now, based on his 2012-13 run-blocking grade of +16.2, but the trickle-down effect of the offensive line's struggles has dipped his preseason run-blocking down to -1.1.
Not even he can save them, it seems.
If this trend continues into the regular season, the Ravens may thus need to reshuffle their offensive line to better maximize the talents of Rice and Pierce—doubly so if Flacco's well of receiving weapons dries up because of injury or simply poor play.
The run game was once Baltimore's surefire way to gain meaningful yards. For example, other than in his rookie campaign, Rice has had at least 1,100 rushing yards per year. He also led the team in first downs last year with 51.
This preseason, however, the products of the run game have shrunk considerably and it's not without lack of trying.
The famed starting offensive line that has gotten so much attention because of the Ravens' Super Bowl success may not be the group they need to get the run game going.
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