Eisenberg: Better Red-Zone Offense Key To Playoff Run


The Ravens have built up their confidence with four wins in a row, but here's a sobering thought: all four wins came against teams that currently don't have winning records and wouldn't make the playoffs as things stand now.

I bring it up not to diminish the crucial achievement, just to point out that the Ravens are still in development as a playoff contender as they rebound from their 4-6 start. We'll know a lot more about them after their upcoming, regular-season-ending games against the New England Patriots and Cincinnati Bengals – two teams seemingly destined for the postseason.

You have to hang with the top teams to have a shot at making noise in January. You have to be playing at a high level.

The Ravens certainly are getting there. They've faced an assortment of challenges throughout the 2013 season, but most of those situations are trending the right way now.

The defense experienced some forgettable moments earlier, but it is now playing about as well from front to back as any defense in the league. Defensive Coordinator Dean Pees' unit is ranked seventh in points allowed, fourth in red zone stops and ninth in overall defense – in all cases, far better than the defense that won a Super Bowl in 2012.

The special teams units also had some down moments earlier, but they're on a major roll now. The Ravens rank first in the league in average punt return and second in average kickoff return, thanks largely to Jacoby Jones. Justin Tucker hasn't missed a field goal since mid-September. The coverage units have yielded precious little in recent games.

Even the offense is trending the right way after some miserable interludes earlier in the season. Get this: the Ravens have put together seven drives of 68 yards or longer in their past three games. They're definitely moving the ball more using "three wides" as a base philosophy.

As I see it, only one major issue still looms, one persistent trouble spot likely to cause problems at some point if not corrected. That's the Ravens' habit of scoring field goals rather than touchdowns.

Most teams reached the end zone on over half of their red-zone visits, but the Ravens are one of the few under 50 percent (48.9) in 2013. And they're not trending in the right direction in this case. They're at 28.5 percent (4 of 14) during their four-game winning streak. Meanwhile, Tucker has kicked 15 field goals in the four games.

Yes, they got away with it Monday night in Detroit. After the first of Tucker's six field goals, I tweeted that they would need to get into the end zone at some point to win the game. Well, they didn't.

But I'll stick with the general point that you can't expect to go too far if you're continually bumping up your side of the scoreboard in three-point chips rather than in seven-point chunks. Too many top teams are just too potent on offense to allow you to consistently get away with that.

It's not hard to discern why the Ravens are struggling near the goal line. Their lack of a consistently productive running game forces them to the air, and their best receivers are speed guys whose greatest advantage is lessened in the red zone's limited space.

But that doesn't mean solutions can't be uncovered. It's a fluid situation. Dennis Pitta's return should help.

That they'll make it into the postseason is still far from assured, courtesy of their slow start, but if they can clean up their red-zone issue and keep the others from reappearing, they've got a shot to make some noise.

Big picture, it appears the Ravens and quarterback Joe Flacco dodged a bullet when he took a dangerous-looking hit Monday night and came away with just a knee sprain. I'm not too worried about him suffering a more serious injury Sunday against the New England Patriots. Playing with a supportive brace diminishes the chance of anything bad happening.

A bigger immediate concern is how, if at all, the brace might restrict Flacco. More than ever, he is using his legs to extend plays and scramble for gains. His running has become a big help in a year when the offense has often struggled. If the brace limits him, that's a setback. But if he can still run and make plays on the ground despite the brace, the Ravens really dodged a bullet.

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