Red-zone horror show hindering Ravens

OWINGS MILLS -- Magical incantations? Evil spells? Voodoo hexes? It's been months since Halloween has passed, and the Baltimore Ravens are still worried about ghosts. In the Ravens' woeful case, it's a spooky red-zone offense and horrific turnovers that continue to haunt them.

"We're cursed in the red zone," tight end Todd Heap said following the Ravens' 12-10 loss Sunday to the Denver Broncos where they failed to score a touchdown in three trips inside the 20-yard line that yielded only a field goal. "That's where you win in this league, when you get the ball in there and score points. The red zone has been our nightmare."

Despite solid drives and a few capable weapons at the skill positions, the Ravens (4-9) have consistently failed deep in opponents' territory. Heading into Monday night's game against the Green Bay Packers at M&T Bank Stadium, the Ravens have a 35.5 touchdown percentage inside the red zone.

Only three teams rank below the Ravens in red-zone inefficiency: the Cleveland Browns (31.3), the Arizona Cardinals (31.6) and the Buffalo Bills (32.4). Those scoring-challenged teams have a combined win-loss record of 12-27.

Meanwhile, the Ravens have a minus-14 turnover ratio.

Not coincidentally, they rank second-to-last in the league in scoring with 13.2 points per contest and 26th in total offense.

Whether it's oft-criticized quarterback Kyle Boller uncorking two interceptions in Denver or a dormant running game, one of the major reasons for the Ravens' lowly status is their lack of offensive productivity.

Against the Broncos, the Ravens squandered several prime opportunities.

In the first quarter following B.J. Sams' 87-yard kickoff return, the Ravens actually lost one yard on four plays as 1- and 3-yard gains were counteracted by tight end Daniel Wilcox's false start. The drive was capped by kicker Matt Stover's field goal following receiver Mark Clayton's incomplete shuffle pass.

In the fourth quarter, the results were similar. With a first-and-goal at the Broncos' 5, the Ravens ran the football three times for zero yards and didn't score.

As Ravens coach Brian Billick has said several times, the best way to score near the goal line is to overpower the defense on the ground. That's easier said than done, though.

With the Ravens down to third fullback Ovie Mughelli due to injuries to former Pro Bowl alternate lead blocker Alan Ricard and rookie Justin Green, and former Pro Bowl runner Jamal Lewis having a career-low season behind a banged-up offensive line, it's an understatement to call the running game ineffective.

The Ravens average only 92.8 rushing yards per game with a cumulative average per carry of 3.4 yards. They rank 26th in the NFL in rushing offense.

Lewis, who missed Sunday's game with an injured hand and remains a question mark for Monday night, has only rushed for 638 yards and two touchdowns. No other running back, including backup Chester Taylor, has even scored a rushing touchdown.

"We've got to be able to punch it in when we get down there," center Mike Flynn said. "That's been one of the most frustrating things about this season."

Defenses anticipate the jump ball from the Ravens near the goal line, and drop back extra defenders into the zone. If the Ravens run the football, linebackers and safeties race up to the line of scrimmage and invariably shut down holes quickly.

"They're dropping a lot of people into zones and then they're coming up to make the play," Heap said. "People are beginning to play us differently. The bottom line is we have to find a way to score down there no matter what defense they're playing."

When the Ravens went for it on fourth-and-goal in the fourth quarter Sunday, Broncos middle linebacker Al Wilson penetrated the line on a run blitz to spill the play to Ian Gold and Courtney Brown. They combined to stuff Taylor for a 4-yard loss in a missed opportunity that did a lot to cost Baltimore a chance to upset the AFC West leaders.

"You can't win in this league if you don't score points," wide receiver Derrick Mason said. "You've got to score touchdowns, not field goals. That's been our problem all year."

 

In addition to being a long time contributor to RavensInsider, Aaron Wilson writes for the Carroll County Times in Westminster Maryland.

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