Eisenberg: Despite the Risk, It's Time to Become More Daring on Offense


Anyone who follows this column knows where I stand on the value of a running game. I'm a big proponent.

Yes, pro football has become much more pass-happy in recent years, but it's still very much a contest of physical will. A solid running game not only helps you dominate in that realm, but also controls the clock and keeps your defense off the field.

Call me old school, but I still think one of the surest ways to win is to just cram the ball down your opponents' throats.

That's why I was so supportive of the Ravens' determination to rekindle their running game this season after it slipped to No. 28 in the league a year ago. A productive ground game is especially important to a team whose primary commandment has long been, and remains, "thou shalt be tough."

Ravens Head Coach John Harbaugh once said a running game "is who we are," and I could not agree more.

Eleven games in, it's safe to call the rekindling a success. The Ravens are averaging 25.4 more rushing yards per game compared to last year, good for a top-10 ranking. And that's with an offensive line depleted by injuries.

The project has gone so well that now we're talking about whether the Ravens have swung too far into "ground and pound" mode. After bizarrely leading the league in pass attempts in 2016, they're No. 19 this year and tied for No. 7 in rushing attempts.

Joe Flacco brought it up Monday night after the Ravens beat the Houston Texans mainly by playing it safe on offense, i.e. by putting a premium on protecting the ball, avoiding turnovers, as opposed to being aggressive. They put up enough points, but their defense and special teams carried them.

Afterward, Flacco wondered whether the Ravens were selling themselves short by not giving their offense more of a chance to become a big-play force.

"We're not just trying to get in the playoffs. We want to get to the big game," Flacco said. "You want to have all cylinders clicking – special teams, offense and defense. You don't want to just go in with one or two of them. You want to have all of them, and you usually need all of them."

It was nice to hear someone offer a reminder of what the goals of a winning franchise should be. The Ravens still put themselves in their category, but they haven't been serious contenders since 2014. These days, they're pleased to be "in the hunt" and focused on getting back to the postseason, but as Flacco pointed out, they should shoot higher.

His analysis, it seems, was they might be able to get away with playing cautiously against average teams during the regular season, but they'll need a more explosive offense if they face top competition in January.

I agree.

You can beat Matt Moore, Brett Hundley and Tom Savage that way, but here come Matthew Stafford and Ben Roethlisberger, much more challenging, with playoff dates a possibility.

It goes against my natural, all-in support for "ground and pound," but I think the Ravens need to become more daring on offense.

Right now, they're ranked No. 31 in the league in total offense. They're also No. 31 in third-down conversions, ahead of just the winless Cleveland Browns. Some of their own fans booed their inability to stay on the field Monday night.

The trade-off was they didn't turn the ball over; they haven't lost a fumble on a running play since Week 4.

But with an offense ranked so low, honestly, how high is their ceiling?

It would be a risky adjustment because the Ravens quite likely can make the playoffs with their status quo approach. ESPN analytics now give them a 75 percent chance of qualifying.

But the status quo leaves them walking the narrowest of tightropes. If the defense doesn't force turnovers and their special teams aren't at their best, they're vulnerable. A cautious offense could become a fateful problem, as it almost did Monday night.

It wouldn't take much to change the dynamic, just mix in a few more downfield shots and completions. Really, caution can continue as the general philosophy, with the running game still featured.

But for big things to happen, the offense needs more pop.

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