Eisenberg: Penalties Are Threatening Ravens Season

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If you want to continually gauge the Ravens' chances of winning during their game against the Cincinnati Bengals Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium, check how often they're drawing penalties.

That statistic has correlated to wins and losses almost as surely as the final score.

In the Ravens' five wins, they've averaged 6.8 penalties and 55.4 penalty yards, but in their five losses, they've averaged 10 penalties and 90.4 penalty yards – significant enough increases to pretty much spell the difference between success and failure.

Though palpable, the trend defies deeper analysis. The Ravens have experienced low-penalty games at home and on the road, and against both winning and losing opposition. They've also experienced high-penalty games in all those circumstances.

So there's no predicting it, but if a flag-fest unfolds, as it did against the New York Giants (15 penalties), Dallas Cowboys (12) and Oakland Raiders (10), the numbers suggest the Ravens are in trouble.

Only once in 2016 have they won while drawing a double-digit flag total – on Nov. 6 against Pittsburgh, when they prevailed despite drawing 10 penalties. The Steelers drew 13 flags that day, helping offset the damage the Ravens' flags wreaked.

For the record, the Ravens are 3-1 this season when they incur fewer penalties than their opposition. But they've done that in fewer than half of their games.

Generally, a team beats itself in one of two ways, with turnovers or penalties. Entering 2016, the Ravens were focused on bettering their turnover performance after finishing 2015 with a devastating minus-14 ratio. The Ravens also incurred their share of penalties last season, but the turnover disparity was alarming.

The focus on turnovers has paid off, as the Ravens have a plus-3 ratio this year, good for a No. 8 league ranking. Now, though, penalties are threatening their season, much as turnovers did a year ago. The Ravens are on pace to commit 134 penalties, just shy of the franchise record of 139 set in 2005.

The offense is the chief culprit, having committed 43 penalties compared to 24 on the defense, according to ESPN. The Ravens' 19 offensive holding penalties leads the NFL, and the unit also has accumulated flags for false starts (nine), delays of game (five), illegal shifts (three) and illegal formations (two) – all according to ESPN.

The steady drip of offensive flags has frustrated fans, but no one is more vexed than the coaches, players and front office decision-makers. With the Ravens defense and special teams playing well, they believe they're close to a winning formula if only the offense perked up. And while a handful of factors are involved in the offense's production, penalties might loom the largest.

The offense isn't solely responsible, though. Penalties on the defense and special teams also have proved costly at times.

The buck stops with the coaches, no doubt, but they've gone over the rules and techniques in question – gone over it all ad nauseam with the players, I'm sure. At some point, it's up to the players to do their jobs without getting flagged. I see them as a larger factor in the calculus of responsibility.

And remember, while all penalties fall under the same statistical category, they belong to different subspecies. Some are attributable to inexperience, others to over-exuberance; some to a lapse in technique, others to temper.

In other words, there isn't one fix that can be applied with the expectation that the problem will magically vanish. The coaches just have to keep grinding away at the various issues and hope that produces improvement.

The good news is the Ravens are taking the right approach and not blaming the refs, unlike several teams that have gone public with complaints. The refs are human and do blow some calls, but they get far more right, and in any case, they're trying to apply a rule book the size of an encyclopedia, a nearly impossible job. Blaming them for your mistakes isn't going to help.

"You can look at the officiating all you want," Ravens Head Coach John Harbaugh said this week. "You can look at the calls. You can ask yourself whether the calls are being made on both sides all you want. That's not going to fix anything. We just have to find a way to do it our way, play in such a way that we don't have penalties."

That approach, demanding accountability rather than lateraling blame, is the best reason for fans to believe the Ravens' penalty habit might eventually dwindle.

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