Ravens struggling to score touchdowns in red zone

OWINGS MILLS - There are no walls or conspiracies blocking the Baltimore Ravens from safely escorting regulation footballs into the end zone. It's only starting to appear that way. The Ravens rank last in the NFL in red-zone offense, scoring touchdowns on 29.2 percent of their trips inside the 20-yard line.

Entering Sunday night's contest against the high-scoring St. Louis Rams, Baltimore (5-3) has ventured into the red zone 24 times. Yet, the Ravens have produced 15 field goals and just seven touchdowns from those prime scoring chances. Despite employing overpowering NFL rushing leader Jamal Lewis and the heaviest offensive line in the league, the Ravens usually have to be rescued by kicker Matt Stover. In an area some football players refer to as the green zone because touchdowns tend to trigger both victories and incentive clauses, the Ravens are striking out. "We have to be better in the red zone," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "When you run the ball as well as we do, we should be better in the red zone. "Part of the problem is we are stubbing our toes with penalties and mistakes. If we can eliminate our mistakes, I think that our red-zone percentage will go up." 

Through a combination of factors that includes play-calling, penalties, the difficult nature of moving forward in a constricted space and having a one-dimensional offense, it has been "rough sledding," to borrow a phrase from offensive line coach Jim Colletto. For whatever reason, the running game is stalling in an area that's rapidly become unfriendly territory for the Ravens. "You can't get too cute," said Lewis, who has rushed for 1,045 yards and six touchdowns. "It's all about dominance in the red zone. You have to be able to punch the ball in the end zone. "It's frustrating because there's no reason why we shouldn't be able to score from 10 yards out when we do what we do best: dominate the line of scrimmage." 

The problem seems to have gotten more serious in recent weeks. In a 24-17 win over the Jacksonville Jaguars on Sunday, the Ravens didn't score in three trips to the red zone. The running game averaged only 2.4 yards on seven attempts inside the 20. In the Ravens' last 15 scoring opportunities inside the 20, they have scored only three touchdowns, leaving multiple potential points off the scoreboard. "It's a little bit harder at this level because you just don't physically kill somebody all the time," Colletto said. "Sometimes, we block it well and we don't quite find the hole. Sometimes, we don't block it well and the back doesn't have anywhere to go. It's frustrating." 

Baltimore has scored on 22 of its 24 trips inside the red zone. The lone exceptions are a fumble by rookie quarterback Kyle Boller against the Cleveland Browns with Lewis stumbling on a 4th-and-1 sweep in a 17-10 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs. Over the last two games, though, the Ravens have gone 1-for-8 in the red zone. Stover kicked four field goals in a win over the Denver Broncos that included five red-zone trips with Boller finding tight end Terry Jones on a waggle pass for a touchdown. There was an infamous sequence from the Chiefs game where two touchdowns were nullified by penalties on one drive. Jones was hit with a holding penalty and an illegal shift negated a touchdown run on a fumble recovered by tight end Todd Heap. Stover entered the game and booted a 29-yard field goal. 

For the season, Stover has scored 65 points with 17-of-19 accuracy. Lewis has scored three touchdowns in the red zone. Yet, on 27 of his runs in that area, he has failed to breach the line of scrimmage 10 times. "We probably need to do more misdirection plays to take advantage of everybody jumping on the running game," Colletto said. "We're looking at things to loosen the defense up a little bit. It's always going to be rough sledding because our forte is running the ball down people's throats." 

Boller has been sacked twice, going 9-for-25 with three touchdowns, no interceptions and two fumbles. His favorite targets have been Heap and receiver Travis Taylor in the red zone, connecting with them for five 2-point conversions. The Ravens have committed seven penalties, two flags on offensive tackle Orlando Brown, with another being declined. "Sometimes, we have had a couple of penalties in the red zone," Lewis said. "We'll get to the 4-yard line, then we're right back up to the 9 or 10. You have to have that momentum in the red zone."

 Obviously, the Ravens have a necessary sense of urgency on this issue. Will the situation improve? "Once we get over that hump and start putting points on the board, we'll know how to do it," Boller said. "At least we're getting three points, but we know we should be getting seven points. It's frustrating." 


Aaron Wilson writes for the Carroll County Times.

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