The Ravens' offense wants to establish a mindset in Pittsburgh that it can block people and run the ball when it wants to. The running play is something that lately Joe Flacco has had to use as a check-down option when he does his pre-snap read. Opposing teams have been taking away the designed running play from the Ravens. There are a number of reasons for this, including an offensive line that is struggling to find its cohesion within the execution of a zone-blocking scheme. The Ravens used to just block straight up man-to-man with occasional double-teaming by the center and guards. Who knows, they may go back to that traditional blocking system in Pittsburgh.
Another factor hindering the running game is that Ray Rice has not been 100% healthy. A nagging lower leg injury has taken away about a tenth of Rice's acceleration and burst. In the NFL, that's enough of a decrease in performance to turn Rice into a below-average running back.
In defense of Rice, when he does carry the ball, the holes to run through are smaller and are closing faster, due to the offensive tackles and guards getting pushed back on a consistent basis.
Bernard Pierce is healthy and he has had the same results as Rice. Nowhere to run…
Joe Flacco and coordinator Jim Caldwell want to establish the run, of course, because it's the best way to keep the defense honest and it opens up your passing attack. Without a balanced run/pass ratio, defenses can just sit in a Cover 2 and commit to an all-out pressure-attack on the passer. Play-action possibilities go out the window. The result is Flacco has to sit in the shotgun formation and throw 50 passes. When that happens, the Ravens usually lose. Flacco ends up taking 8 or 9 hits, is hurried 15 times, and probably throws 2 or 3 INT's.
Imposing the mindset that you can block and run the ball anytime you want takes away all that mess.
Back in the days before Flacco, the Ravens were a team that relied on the running game because they HAD to. Of course it didn't hurt that you had future HOF'er Jonathan Ogden at left tackle, not to mention other very good linemen back then. But the fact was the Ravens couldn't seem to get a consistent passing game going anyway, due to a carousel of QB's who were up-and-down and receivers who were less than elite (with the possible exception of guys like Todd Heap, Qadry Ismail or Derrick Mason)…
Point is, with the luxury of Joe Flacco's passing arm and his ability to see the whole field, the Ravens no longer NEEDED to run as much as they once did. Then throw in the emergence of Torrey Smith at wideout and Dennis Pitta as a receiving tight end, and it seemed logical the Ravens should slant their offensive strategy more toward a pass-first mindset.
All of that has changed in 2013 so far, however, due to the unexpected loss of Pitta (hip), the failure to re-sign Anquan Boldin, the nagging injury to Rice (which also takes away Flacco's short pass and screen options), and the slow learning curve of the offensive line.
All of a sudden, the success of the Ravens is dependent on the running game once again.
It used to be the Ravens would go into Pittsburgh and the Steelers knew that the Ravens would call a running play 70% of the time. In fact, they knew what running play it would be. Usually it was Jamaal Lewis between the tackles. The Ravens dared you to stop it. They enjoyed blocking on you. Go ahead, put eight in the box against them, they would run the play anyway. And usually get positive yards out of it as well.
Times have changed. Now if the Ravens see eight in the box, Flacco will audible out of the running play. He will call a slant or another quick-hit type pass play. Or if the Steelers' corners are playing press coverage on Torrey Smith or Jacoby Jones or Tandon Doss, he might just call a go-for-it-all fly pattern to a wideout.
I expect the Steelers to call the bluff of the Ravens' offense — in other words, dare the Ravens to run on them, and challenge the Ravens to stick with the run even it doesn't work at first.
All other facets of the game being equal between both teams in the outcome of the game—which is usually how it ends up in a game in Pittsburgh between these two rivals— the Ravens' biggest challenge on offense will be to change their mindset about blocking for the run and establishing the run.
Game time is 4:30 P.M. EST on Sunday, October 20, 2013. There should be national network TV coverage available on this one.