Ravens' running game needs improvement

OWINGS MILLS, Md. - John Harbaugh knows the Baltimore Ravens must improve their running game if they are to reach the playoffs for a sixth consecutive season.

Against Buffalo on Sunday, however, Harbaugh was convinced Baltimore couldn't win by rushing the ball. So he called upon Joe Flacco to throw on virtually every play.

Flacco attempted 50 passes, at one point on 31 consecutive offensive plays. In contrast, the Ravens (2-2) had a franchise-record low nine rushing attempts, just two after halftime, in a 23-20 defeat.

"I just felt like we weren't running the ball well enough to win the game," Harbaugh said Monday. "Looking back on it, I feel the same way. No second-guessing myself on that. That was my decision, and that's the way we went with it. If you feel like we should have run the ball more in the second half, then I definitely respect that opinion, but it didn't look that way to me."

Baltimore finished with 24 yards rushing and Flacco threw five interceptions. That's five more pickoffs than he had in four playoff games last season during the Ravens' run to a Super Bowl victory.

But Flacco doesn't deserve all the blame for the stunning loss to the Bills. He was sacked four times and under pressure throughout the afternoon.

"When you're hurried through your progression, or you can only get through one or two aspects of your progression and you don't have a chance to let things develop, then you've got to push the ball somewhere pretty quickly before the route develops," Harbaugh said.

Running back Ray Rice returned from a hip injury that kept him sidelined one week earlier, but that's not why the running game was so pitiful. There's plenty of blame to spread around on an offense that has yet to produce 100 yards rushing in any game this season.

"We've just got to become maybe a bit more physical, maybe mix it up a little bit more early on," Flacco said. "We get some of our passing game going and we can get on top of those runs. We are just not good enough right now, I guess. That is probably the simplest explanation."

It can't continue. Not if the Ravens intend to get some separation between themselves and the rest of the mediocre AFC North.

"We have to become a good run-the-ball football team," Harbaugh said. "We need to be physical up front, and that needs to be evident in the way we play. Altogether, we've got to work on getting there, and that's what we'll do."

This is the same offensive line that played in the Super Bowl, with one notable exception. Second-year center Gino Gradkowski has taken over for Matt Birk, who retired after the 2012 season. Gradkowski calls the blocking assignments on the line, and at this point, well, he's no Matt Birk.

"We're feeling that in there right now," Harbaugh said. "Gino is a really smart guy, but Matt had been at it for a lot of years. So, that's something that we're working through."

And it's only part of the problem.

"The rest of the offensive line, we've just got to get better," Harbaugh said. "We've got to come off the ball in the run game a lot better than we're doing, and we've got to be more physical with the inside part of our pass protection. Joe does not need to be under the pressure he's under. "

Rice proved more effective at pass blocking than running the ball.

"It's hard to run the ball when you get behind, so I just played my role and tried to protect Joe and keep him upright," he said.

The Ravens next face unbeaten Miami (3-0) on Sunday.

"We haven't played well on the road, twice now," Harbaugh said. "We've got to figure that one out this week.  We hope that by the end of the year, we have a good track record playing on the road. That's going to be the goal and we've got to get past that."

On the positive side, Baltimore shares first place in the division with Cleveland and Cincinnati.

"It's a consolation, no doubt," Harbaugh said. "Here, we sit, tied for the lead in our division with a tiebreaker on Cleveland."

On the injury front, Harbaugh said wide receiver Jacoby Jones (knee) should return to practice this week, and wide receivers Marlon Brown (hamstring) and Deonte Thompson (concussion) should be OK for Sunday.

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