When we asked about the Baltimore Ravens running the ball only nine times in their Week 4 loss to the Buffalo Bills, Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco, whom we spoke to in conjunction with the McDonald's "Who's Got the Mighty Wings" campaign, said that wasn't the team's plan.
Though he cited both a struggle to run in the first half as well as a 13-point deficit at halftime as reasons for this, he reiterated that the game plan versus the Bills was not to pass as heavily and run as sparsely as they ultimately did.
The result was 50 total passes and five interceptions for Flacco and a 23-20 loss.
The fact that he passed so much while running backs Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce barely touched the ball belies a problem running the ball that the Ravens have had all season long. The inability to run well has much to do with why the Ravens are 2-2 through four games.
Presently, the Ravens rank 28th in the league in average rushing yardage per game at 64 yards. Last year, the Ravens ranked 10th in rushing yardage per game at 123.5. Granted, they ran the ball an average of 28.8 times per game in 2012, compared to 24.2 attempts per game this year, but four fewer carries per game isn't the cause of the Ravens' rushing yardage dropping by nearly half.
So, what has changed?
Baltimore's struggles running the ball can be traced to its run-blocking. Their offensive line underwent two key changes after last season, with longtime center Matt Birk retiring, giving way to second-year player Gino Gradkowski, and Bryant McKinnie getting the nod at left tackle. The hip injury suffered by tight end Dennis Pitta has put fellow tight end Ed Dickson into a greater receiving role, further depleting the OL's ability to block well in the run game.
Presently, Pro Football Focus' (subscription required) run-blocking grade for the Ravens is at minus-24.8; last year, it was plus-13.1. Football Outsiders has the Ravens offensive line ranked 30th in the league in run-blocking, noting that 30 percent of their runs have gone for no gain or a loss. Last year, they were sixth overall, and only 16 percent of their runs were stuffed.
That's a major swing from one season to the next. No wonder the Ravens aren't running the ball well, to the point that they completely abandoned it last week. The key now is to turn that around.
One thing that should help is the signing of offensive tackle Eugene Monroe, whom the Ravens acquired from the Jacksonville Jaguars early in the week in a trade for their 2014 fourth- and fifth-round draft picks.
Monroe has been one of Jacksonville's best offensive linemen, earning a plus-5.5 run-blocking grade from Pro Football Focus last year. That number dipped to minus-4.6 through the first four games of 2013, owing heavily to an overall worse Jacksonville offensive line. With better talent around him in Baltimore, he should provide a boost to the lagging run game.
Speaking to Jeff Zrebiec and Aaron Wilson of the Baltimore Sun, ESPN's Louis Riddick detailed just how much of an upgrade Monroe is over McKinnie, saying, "He's young, healthy, has been relatively durable and has good character, a lot of the things that Bryant McKinnie isn't now. Bryant is old [and] you can't trust him. He doesn't have good feet anymore. For a guy 345 pounds, he can't run block worth [anything]. They know Bryant is not the answer."
However, that's just one step. The other is to not abandon the run, even if the blocking isn't working as hoped or opposing defenses are getting repeated stops. Even Ravens offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell conceded that the Ravens didn't run enough against Buffalo and that it was a mistake to call just two runs in the second half of the game, regardless of what they were seeing from the Bills defense.
Maybe passing the ball so much would work if Flacco's receiving corps was what it was last year, with deep threat Torrey Smith, physical possession receiver Anquan Boldin and the ever-reliable Pitta. But Pitta is sidelined with injury and Boldin was traded to the San Francisco 49ers. Add into that Jacoby Jones' knee injury that he's still working back from, and Flacco doesn't have many options.
The Ravens need to run well this year to help out Flacco and to win games. While the passing game isn't a complete nightmare, the weaknesses in it must be balanced out by better running. The blocking must improve if the run game is going to return to its 2013 form.
Though it goes beyond McKinnie—head coach John Harbaugh characterized the whole line as "disappointing" after the loss to Buffalo—swapping him out for Monroe is a good start. The problems aren't with Rice or Pierce, but with the players tasked to run-block for them. Only if that gets fixed will the Ravens run game improve, and there's no denying that it must if they are going to successfully defend their Super Bowl title.
Check out Joe Flacco in the McDonald's Mighty Wings commercials and be sure to visit WhosGotTheMightyWings.com to find out if Flacco—or someone else—was the one to steal the Mighty Wings.