Baltimore Ravens must re-evaluate short-yardage play-calling

When Baltimore traveled to Indianapolis, the game was set up to be an intriguing matchup of two of the best teams in the AFC, with both the Ravens and Colts riding an offensive explosion of productivity.

After opening up the season with a pair of tough losses (at Denver, home against Philadelphia), the Colts coasted to wins over Jacksonville and Tennessee. With Andrew Luck providing brilliant play throughout, the Colts led the NFL in scoring offense and total offense through four weeks of action.

Baltimore also entered the game red hot. After a poor opening performance against AFC North rival Cincinnati, the Ravens went on a three-game tear, with the offense firing on all cylinders under first-year coordinator Gary Kubiak. In wins over Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Carolina, Joe Flacco completed 68 percent of his passes, racking up six touchdowns (against one interception) and a 108.8 quarterback rating. The QB enjoyed the first sack-free three-game stretch of his career. This was due, in no small part, to the fact that the Ravens were one of just three teams to run the ball more than they passed it during the season's opening month. It was this commitment to the run that had many people, including me, believing the Ravens were on their way to becoming the most dominant team in the AFC.

So naturally, this became a game dominated by defense. Flacco -- who, again, had not been sacked since Week 1 -- was sacked four times. He threw an interception and the Ravens lost two fumbles. Luck tossed two picks -- one inside the red zone -- and the Colts had to settle for two field goals on two more red-zone trips. At the end of the day, Indy held on for a 20-13 win.

With all this as a backdrop, the most telling development for me was the Ravens' play selection in short-yardage situations, particularly on third and fourth down, where the Ravens went a combined 2-for-14. On seven of those opportunities, the distance to gain was 3 yards or fewer -- and the Ravens, despite their newfound commitment to the ground attack, ran the ball just once (failing to gain the first down in that single instance).

Case in point: Early in the first quarter, after the Colts had taken a 3-0 lead, the Ravens found themselves with a third-and-1 at their own 29-yard line. Instead of pounding the ball for the first, Baltimore had Flacco drop back ... and he proceeded to get sacked for a 12-yard loss. Drive over.

Early in the second quarter, with Indy still leading 3-0 and having pretty much dominated play up to that point, the Ravens marched 93 yards on 11 plays, eventually facing a third-and-1 at the Colts' 3-yard line. Now, on this snap, Baltimore did keep the ball on the ground, but Lorenzo Taliaferro was stuffed for no gain. Some might argue that John Harbaugh, facing fourth-and-1, should have just taken the field goal and tied the game. Not me. On the road against the best offense in the NFL, you have to be prepared for a potential shootout, and three points just isn't going to cut it here. Your team just went the length of the field, and you hate to come away without a touchdown to reward them for their effort. So I support the decision to go for it. But the Ravens had Flacco drop back again -- and again, he was sacked.

There are any number of reasons to throw in these situations. Rationale can be based on what you have done in the past, what the defense has done in the past and which matchups you think give you the best chance to succeed. However, my guess is that the Ravens will re-evaluate their play-calling here, and recommit to the balanced formula that could make them one of the most dominant -- and well-rounded -- teams in the AFC.


The demise of Carolina's defense: Last year, I covered six Panthers games -- and came away from those games thinking they had the best front seven I had seen in a long time. Carolina ranked second in both total defense and scoring defense while piling up an NFL-high 60 sacks. Besides currently being ranked 20th in total defense (which, admittedly, isn't the best barometer for judging the true effectiveness of a unit), there are two key areas that tell the whole story about the defensive ineptitude Carolina has displayed this season: On third down, they have gone from 12th in the NFL in 2013 to 22nd this year -- and worse, they have dropped from the third-best red-zone defense last year to dead last in 2014.

A mind-blowing stat: This one puts everything in perspective. Aaron Rodgers became the second-fastest NFL player to throw his 200th touchdown pass, accomplishing the feat in 99 games, compared to Dan Marino's 89. This coming on the same weekend in which Peyton Manning became the second QB with 500 touchdown passes (joining Brett Favre). So, yeah ... Rodgers, my choice as the best quarterback in the game right now and likely an eventual Hall of Famer, only has to throw 300 more scoring strikes to catch up with those two. Better keep that arm loose.

Follow Brian Billick on Twitter @coachbillick.

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