The Ravens need to run the ball to succeed. That doesn't change from year to year. Even though they're built around a Super Bowl-winning quarterback who gets paid a lot to make plays with his arm, they are – and probably always will be – a physical, downhill team. Running the ball is in their DNA, part of who they are.
I think the No. 1 reason they had a bounce-back season in 2014, returning to the playoffs after falling short the year before, was they got their ground game going again. It enabled them to control the clock, keep their defense fresh and dominate opponents late in games.
If anything, the first three games of 2015 underscored the running game's importance. The Ravens struggled on the ground in all three games, especially against Denver and Cincinnati. I don't think it was a coincidence they wound up 0-3.
Then they registered their first win last Thursday night in Pittsburgh when ... yes ... they finally got their ground game going, with running back Justin Forsett piling up 150 of the team's 191 rushing yards.
Get the picture? Although it's a bit of an oversimplification, when they run it, they win, and when they don't, they don't.
The call-to-ground is sounding even louder now that the Ravens' wide receiver corps is reeling from a string of debilitating injuries. There's no doubt about what the Ravens must do starting this Sunday against the Cleveland Browns at M&T Bank Stadium.
Play ground-and-pound football. Tote the rock. Go old school. Is there another suitable cliché?
With Steve Smith Sr. dealing with microfractures in his back (just typing that hurts), Breshad Perriman out indefinitely with a knee injury and Michael Campanaro out for the year, the Ravens are short on pass-catching playmakers. The Monday Morning Quarterback's Peter King is a Ravens proponent but called their wide receiver depth chart "the worst in the league right now."
That doesn't mean they should abandon the pass. As Ravens Head Coach John Harbaugh said Monday, "We have to be good." Indeed, it's imperative in a pass-happy league that you keep up to some degree. If opponents know you can't pass (or run, for that matter), they've got you where they want you.
Whether it's with his healthy wideouts (Kamar Aiken, Marlon Brown, rookie Darren Waller and newcomer Chris Givens) or his young tight ends (Crockett Gillmore, Nick Boyle and Maxx Williams), Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco needs to make sure the passing game still produces.
A healthy run-pass balance is the goal.
I like Flacco's chances of still being able to move the chains with his arm. Aiken, Waller and Boyle sounds like a law firm more than a trio of receivers who could sink the Steelers, but all three contributed key receptions in Pittsburgh.
Whether they can consistently contribute is a legitimate question, though, which is why the running game needs to flourish. That's the foundation, where everything begins on offense in Baltimore.
The necessary components seemingly are in place. Forsett looked like his Pro Bowl self in Pittsburgh, darting through traffic to make gains. The line struggled in the first three games, but holes opened in Pittsburgh. The return of tackle Eugene Monroe from a concussion should help.
It's a bit of a mystery why the running game stumbled to start the season, but it seemed to find its footing.
Cleveland's defense will only add to the idea that the Ravens should run it Sunday. The Browns are ranked No. 31 in the league in rushing defense and No. 29 in yards allowed per rush – a whopping 4.8 per carry.
With that in mind, Ravens Offensive Coordinator Mark Trestman shouldn't feel compelled to start Sunday's game with three passing plays, as he did in Pittsburgh without success – a three-and-out. The Ravens ran effectively for most of the rest of that night, though, and Trestman seemed to gain confidence in his ground game as the game unfolded.
"Sometimes you have to keep pounding that rock," Harbaugh said Monday, "because (Pittsburgh) made a lot of plays against the run, especially early, and finally it kind of opened up toward the end there a little bit more. But it's always important for us. It's something that we count on doing well, and we need to continue to improve. I don't think we're where we need to be with the run game, yet. That's something we need to continue to work on really hard."