If we know anything about the 2014 Ravens, it's that they're going to be dead serious about running the ball.
In new Offensive Coordinator Gary Kubiak's system, everything starts with the ground game. The front office has focused on giving quarterback Joe Flacco more targets in 2014, but Kubiak's passing game is based on play-action -- fakes that are effective when the running game flourishes but not as effective when the ground game is blunted.
A year ago, the Ravens' ground game more or less collapsed, averaging just 3.1 yards per carry and 83 yards per game – all-time lows for the franchise. The line got pushed around too much and didn't open many holes. Ray Rice was injured at times and not nearly as elusive as usual.
The Ravens have no choice but to get the whole business up and running again (pun intended) if they want to return to the playoffs in 2014.
Naturally, they aren't just closing their eyes and hoping it happens. The front office has also focused on stabilizing the line, re-signing left tackle Eugene Monroe and trading for center Jeremy Zuttah. There was a lot of anticipation about the draft's potential impact, but the Ravens didn't select a running back or an offensive lineman until the third day, so it's hard to expect too much immediately.
So, where do things stand with the running game?
The Ravens have high hopes, but right now, I think there are more questions than answers. It's not alarming because they don't play a game for months; there's plenty of time and the Ravens certainly know what they need to do. But in any case, here are some key questions that need answering before the season starts:
Will Rice get suspended? The Ravens' star runner has been in legal hot water this offseason. It appears he won't receive jail time after being indicted for aggravated assault, but he could miss playing time if NFL commissioner Roger Goodell suspends him for violating the league's personal conduct policy. A likely suspension would be a couple of games at the start of the season.
How will Rice perform when he returns? Even if he is suspended, Rice should be available for most of the season. And make no mistake, the Ravens are still counting on him to carry a heavy rushing load. At some point, the Rice narrative will change to whether he can regain his Pro Bowl form. It's a huge question. There have been reports that he is 15 pounds lighter.
Is there a starting right tackle in the house? The Ravens have identified four of their five starters on the line with Monroe at left tackle, Zuttah at center, Marshal Yanda at right guard and Kelechi Osemele at left guard. For now, the fifth starter is right tackle Rick Wagner, a second-year guy. The front office is high on him, but he played little as a rookie. I could see a veteran being signed to compete for the job.
Is Osemele the left guard or right tackle? If the Ravens aren't satisfied with what they see at right tackle, they could always move Osemele to that edge and put someone else at left guard. Head Coach John Harbaugh has said he prefers the rugged Osemele in the interior, where the Ravens really struggled in 2013. But personnel will determine where he plays.
Is Kyle Juszczyk a capable blocking back? The Ravens had the league's top blocking fullback, but Vonta Leach became a salary cap casualty because they think Juszczyk, a 2013 fourth-round pick, is ready to contribute as an H-back-style receiver. But can he also provide the crunching blocks that open holes on running plays?
Is Zuttah enough of an upgrade at center? The Ravens went all in, signing him to a five-year, $18 million deal after obtaining him from Tampa. The 27-year-old has 76 career starts, so he should be able to run the blocking calls up front, an area in which 2013 starter Gino Gradkowski struggled, especially early. Zuttah is athletic, but he has never made the Pro Bowl, and for what it's worth, the Pro Football Focus website didn't grade him highly in 2013.
Can Bernard Pierce stay healthy? The third-year running back has a ton of talent, but he has struggled with injuries and underwent shoulder surgery after last season. He says he will be ready for training camp. Given the uncertainty about Rice, his readiness is crucial. He could be the game one starter.
Can rookie back Lorenzo Taliaferro pick up some of the load? Even before Rice's troubles began, Harbaugh told the front office he wanted more options at running back. That sounds like carries could be there for the taking. The Ravens drafted Taliaferro in the fourth round last week because he is a big (230 pounds) "one-cut" runner, a perfect fit in the zone blocking scheme Kubiak's system incorporates. At the very least, he could become a short-yardage option.