While the Ray Rice saga is taking some time to remove itself from the Baltimore Ravens’ 2014 identity, the team’s running game may have already moved forward.
The Ravens will try to continue a promising trend in the ground game Sunday in a visit to the Cleveland Browns, who are coming off a big home win and have also overcome a running back’s absence.
With Bernard Pierce and Justin Forsett manning the backfield, Baltimore (1-1) has rushed for 251 yards in two weeks. It isn’t a brow-raising number and ranks sixth in the AFC, but it’s a total it took John Harbaugh’s team four weeks to reach in 2013.
Pierce ran for 96 yards – a total Rice surpassed once last season – on 22 carries in a 26-6 win over Pittsburgh on Sept. 11 and will start at running back for a third straight week. Forsett will play a reserve role after the duo combined for 152 yards on 30 carries against Pittsburgh.
"Both those guys played well, ran hard and protected the football," Harbaugh said. "The offensive line has played really well in front of them, too."
It’s only been one dimension of an offense that ranks ninth in yards per game (373.0), has turned the ball over twice and is tied for the fewest penalties taken (seven).
The passing attack saw plenty of improvement in Week 2, despite throwing for fewer than half of its Week 1 yardage. Joe Flacco completed 35 of 62 passes in a 23-16 loss on Sept. 7 to Cincinnati, racking up 345 yards, a touchdown and an interception for a 71.0 rating. Against the Steelers, the team trimmed the attempts by more than half, and Flacco went 21 for 29 with 166 yards, two TDs, no turnovers and a 109.3 rating.
The pass-to-run ratio was 29-to-36 a week after being 62-to-20.
"(The offensive line) did a great job," Flacco told the team’s official website. "Any time you can protect the quarterback the way they did and wear a team out and get those running yards late, it’s a credit to those guys."
Those numbers have come at home, and continuing to take care of the ball and limit offensive penalties on the road could be difficult. It’s a road environment that New Orleans was unable to overcome in the Browns’ 26-24 home-opening win last Sunday.
"We’re going to have to execute," Harbaugh said. "We’re going to have to do a great job ignoring the noise so to speak and getting the job done, especially early in the game."
The Browns (1-1) snapped an eight-game losing streak with the victory and are one of four teams entering Week 3 without a turnover. It was also their first win in a home opener since 2004 when they won their first three in Cleveland before dropping the next five.
Cleveland has been even better than Baltimore on the ground with 152.5 yards per game and the fifth best yards-per-carry mark in the league (5.08), despite being without lead back Ben Tate for most of it. With Tate expected to miss a second straight game because of a sprained knee suffered in Week 1, Terrance West has taken over and run for 168 yards on 35 carries.
It was quarterback Brian Hoyer, though, who led an 85-yard drive to set up former Ravens kicker Billy Cundiff’s 29-yard field goal with 3 seconds left a week after the team lost on a last-second field goal in Pittsburgh.
Hoyer went 8 of 11 for 78 yards on the final drive, converting twice on third down, and will enter the team’s second home game with the confidence of Cleveland fans, as well as his teammates.
"It’s great to get a win," said Hoyer, who finished 24 of 40 for 204 yards and a touchdown. "The biggest thing for me is to win a game like that. We won one like that in my first start against Minnesota last year and you see the guys when you get back to the sideline really believing in you. That’s the best feeling there is."
Hoyer was without tight end Jordan Cameron, who missed the game because of an injured right shoulder. He returned to practice Wednesday, but coach Mike Pettine is unsure if he’ll play.
The defense might have similarly budding confidence. The Browns held New Orleans to 237 passing yards, roughly 90 yards under the Saints’ average of 325.9 over their previous 30 regular-season games.
Cleveland was without starting linebacker Barkevious Mingo, also due to a shoulder injury, and his status is uncertain.
The Ravens have been short-handed in the secondary with cornerback Lardarius Webb out with a back injury while cornerback Asa Jackson suffered a concussion against New Orleans.
The Browns won’t have to concern themselves with a losing streak to the Ravens. After dropping 11 straight in the series and five straight in Cleveland, the team ended the skids with a 24-18 win on Nov. 3 to split the 2013 series.