Ravens running game getting stonewalled

OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- The Baltimore Ravens' traditional winning foundation was built on the cement blocks of a punishing defense and a smash-mouth running game. Last-minute comebacks engineered by quarterback Steve McNair have rescued the Ravens two weeks in a row. They remain undefeated despite a running game that's crumbling, particularly in critical short-yardage situations.

That was illustrated again in a 16-13 win over the San Diego Chargers when running back Jamal Lewis was slammed for no gain by nose guard Jamal Williams in the fourth quarter on 3rd-and-1. Ravens coach Brian Billick elected to punt rather than risk a fourth-down try against a top-ranked defense that limited Lewis to 34 yards on 15 carries.
Earlier, offensive coordinator Jim Fassel opted for a shovel pass to tight end Daniel Wilcox on 2nd-and-goal after Lewis gained one yard the previous snap. However, Wilcox fumbled it away. It's becoming evident that the Ravens haven't been able to rely on their running game, which ranks 23rd overall with 95.8 yards per contest. The NFL average is 109.4.
"It was tough sledding out there," said Lewis, who had 18 yards on seven carries by halftime. "I was happy that coach Fassel stayed with it with two, three-yard runs, some four, five-yard runs and kept them honest on defense." The Ravens, who finished with a season-low 56 yards on 21 carries, had similar issues in a 15-14 win over the Cleveland Browns. Lewis was stuffed for a loss on a 4th-and-1.
A quarter of the way through the season, the Ravens dipped below last year's average of 100.3 rushing yards when they finished 21st overall.
One major change instituted this offseason was cutting former Pro Bowl alternate fullback Alan Ricard due to his uneven health and Fassel wanting to employ more H-back sets along with phasing in versatile starting fullback Justin Green.
Neither Lewis (268 yards, 73 carries, one touchdown), Mike Anderson (59 yards, one touchdown) or Musa Smith (52 yards) haven't posted noteworthy numbers.
The offensive line didn't open up many holes against San Diego's aggressive, brawny front seven. Now, left guard Edwin Mulitalo (torn triceps) is out for the season and Jason Brown will make his second career start Monday night against the Denver Broncos.
"If it's not there, it's not there," Lewis said. "We've got to compliment their defense or whatever, but it shows that we stuck it out to the end and McNair got it done for us."
Lewis hasn't run with nearly the same explosiveness and tackle-breaking authority that he demonstrated when he rushed for 2,066 yards and was named the 2003 NFL Offensive Player of the Year.
Baltimore's running game has steadily dipped over the last two seasons, dropping from ninth in 2004 (128.9) and 2003 (167.1).
"We've got to come up with better plays and we have to execute better," Billick said. "To get into that third-and-one twice now, you can't leave those on the table.
"That's tough. You leave yourself vulnerable. We've got to look at what we are doing, how we are doing it and see if we can come up with a better answer than we have had in those two situations."
NOTE: The Ravens made no further comment on return specialist B.J. Sams' second driving under the influence arrest in the past 14 months, acknowledging they have spoken to Sams and will let the legal process take its course.
A league spokesman declined comment when asked if Sams will be suspended, citing the confidential nature of the NFL's substance-abuse program. Sams could potentially face a fine and/or a four-game suspension.
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times in Westminster, Maryland.

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