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Over the last couple of years, the Baltimore Ravens have made no secret of their desire to become a pass-first offense. The introduction of the no-huddle offense, the appointment of Jim Caldwell as offensive coordinator, and the record-breaking contract handed out to quarterback Joe Flacco, were all signs that the Ravens were committed to this transition. Unfortunately, injuries to Dennis Pitta and Jacoby Jones, as well as the offseason trade which saw Anquan Boldin head to San Francisco, mean that Baltimore’s progression towards becoming a high-powered offense has stalled somewhat. In theory this should be no problem, as the Ravens have always been a formidable team on the ground, Flacco is proficient off of play action, and the defense looks rejuvenated. The problem however, is that the Ravens have averaged only 77.3 rushing yards per game, and questions are now arising as to whether their traditionally strong running game, has taken a significant step backwards this season?
The Ravens certainly have the talent to run the ball, with Ray Rice among the top five running backs in the NFL, and the talented Bernard Pierce, who was a revelation in his rookie season, providing a perfect change of pace to Rice, and the pair potentially form one of the best running back tandems in the league. Baltimore also possess arguably the best run blocking guard in the league in Marshal Yanda, whilst fellow offensive linemen Kelechi Osemele and Michael Oher, were also both excellent in the run game last season. Then there’s the fullback, Vonta Leach. Leach is certainly the best blocking fullback in the NFL, and is the man that Rice has credited with his success over the last couple of seasons. With all these pieces, it is clear talent is not the issue in Baltimore’s run game deficiencies, and instead, the problem could lie with the coaching staff.
Baltimore were certainly proficient at running the ball under former offensive coordinator Cam Cameron, and in fairness to current offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell, there were no signs of the Ravens’ run game diminishing when he took over towards the end of last season. The Ravens’ front office were clearly concerned, however, that Caldwell’s time in Indianapolis with Peyton Manning could have made the coordinator rusty in the run game, and, prior to their Super Bowl victory against the San Francisco 49ers, brought in Juan Castillo, formerly of the Philadelphia Eagles, as run game coordinator and offensive line coach. The addition was celebrated as a shrewd appointment at the time, but given what Baltimore have shown on the ground so far this season, those celebrations may have been premature.
The adage that things often have to get worse before they get better is particularly appropriate to coaches in the NFL. Instilling new systems, methods, and training practices, can all often have negative effects to begin with, as players take time to adapt to their new roles and responsibilities. That being said, Castillo’s arrival is unlikely to have sparked some huge upheaval, with the former Eagle most likely charged with the tweaking an already successful unit, rather than completely rebuilding it. The Ravens cannot afford to carry an under-performing rushing game this year, especially with the likes of Pitta and Jones injured, meaning that Castillo is potentially already on the hot seat.
It’s not all doom and gloom for the Ravens’ running game however, as they showed much improvement in the second halves of their games against both the Cleveland Browns and Houston Texans. In both games, this improvement coincided with Flacco finding vertical threat Torrey Smith, on a couple of deep balls, and forcing the opposing defenses drop men back, and not stack the box. If Flacco can target Smith deep, early in Baltimore’s next game (away to the Buffalo Bills), it will be interesting to see how much more success, if any, the likes of Rice (if fit) and Pierce can have.
Chances are that this is merely an early season bump in the road for the Ravens running backs, but given the talent that they have at their disposal, it’s certainly not hard to argue that their run game has regressed. Hopefully for Baltimore fans, and Castillo, Flacco will be able to open some space up for his running backs by successfully targeting the likes of Smith and Marlon Brown down the field, but if he can’t, Castillo could soon find himself shorn of certain responsibilities, or worse, looking for a new job.
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