Ravens braintrust says No. 1 goal is to improve ground game

It’s been six months since training camp kicked off back in late July, and after yesterday’s action, only two teams are left dancing.

And one of them is a little familiar to those of us here in the Baltimore area.

Baltimore’s beloved Steelers will meet the Packers in Dallas two weeks from now, and one of the tradition-rich franchises will walk away with yet another title to its name.

The Steelers’ win over the Jets yesterday resembled their divisional-round victory over the Ravens, in that one team jumped out to a big first-half lead, and saw that lead start to disappear after halftime. Unlike the Ravens, the Steelers were able to hang on to their double-digit advantage yesterday, and pulled out the win over Rex Ryan and company.

Pittsburgh was carried by its ground attack, running for a whopping 166 yards, including 135 in a dominating first-half performance.

They controlled the clock, holding the ball for over 21 minutes in the first half, and were able to control the pace of the game while the Jets’ offense had to wait patiently on the sideline.

When you look at the Ravens’ offense this season, those are areas where this team uncharacteristically struggled.

They were middle of the pack in the NFL in rushing yards per game at 114.4, but those yards were incredibly tough to come by. The Ravens had the sixth-most rushing attempts in the league, yet they averaged just 3.8 yards per carry, down from 4.7 in 2009.

Ray-Rice_Purple-Tall.gifTalking to the Ravens’ brass last week, that was the top area that was singled out as something that must improve next season.

“If I was an objective observer, I would say that the run game let us down,” owner Steve Bisciotti said. “Maybe we took that for granted. When you’re getting (4.7) yards per carry, it’s the staple of your offense. The next thing you know, we’re not getting that. It’s not a given. If you can have a (4.7)-yard average running the ball, you can do a lot of good things, and I think Joe (Flacco’s) production would have been better if we had done that. And why we didn’t do it, we need to go back to the drawing board. But you can’t take what you’re good at for granted and then just think you’re going to build on that.”

Head coach John Harbaugh echoed that statement.

“We need to run the ball better,” Harbaugh said. “If we run the ball better and we’re more physical, that opens a lot of possibilities from the passing game, play-calling (and) gives guys a chance to make plays across the board. So if I was going to say one thing, I’d say that would be the No. 1 thing we need to focus on going forward.”

So what was the issue? Part of it certainly hinged on the changes along the offensive line. Tackle Jared Gaither didn’t play a snap all year because of a back injury, which forced right guard Marshal Yanda to slide over to tackle and bumped Chris Chester into the starting lineup at right guard.

That hurt both in terms of chemistry and the fact that guys were playing out of their natural positions.

“I think the fact that we had three guys playing three new spots was tough,” Harbaugh said. “And I don’t think we were ever really able to overcome that. So, we want to find the right spots for the right guys.”

It might have been easy for the Ravens to see Anquan Boldin, Derrick Mason, T.J. Houshmandzadeh and Todd Heap on their roster and decide that they wanted to focus on more of a pass-oriented attack. They certainly leaned more on their passing attack than in previous years, as evidenced by Flacco’s 3,622 passing yards this season.

But surprisingly, the Ravens ran the ball 19 more times in 2010 than they did in 2009. They just were less effective in doing so, which is what needs to change going into next season.

“Why did we run the ball more this year with less success?” Harbaugh said. “That takes a lot of pressure off things and opens everything up. So those are the things we’ve got to go to work on.”

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