In their pursuit of touchdowns, the Ravens have at times turned to deception inside the red zone — QB draws, halfback passes, even having Joe Flacco line up at wide receiver.
Usually, though, they try a more straight-ahead approach inside the 20-yard line, shoving the ball into the belly of running back Ray Rice so he can chase fullback Vonta Leach into the heart of the defense, or keeping it in the careful hands of the quarterback, Flacco.
The Ravens are avoiding back-breaking turnovers when they near their opponent's goal line, and have scored on 90 percent of their possessions after driving inside the 20. But when it comes to scoring touchdowns in those situations, they rank 22nd in the NFL.
"I don't think there are any excuses," offensive coordinator Cam Cameron said. "We've got to execute better."
As they march towards the postseason, where points will be at a premium, the Ravens know that settling for three points inside the red zone could be the difference in a tight game.
The previous seven Super Bowl champions scored touchdowns on at least 55 percent of their red-zone possessions, and the past two — the 2009 New Orleans Saints and the 2010 Green Bay Packers — were successful more than 60 percent of the time. On the road to the Lombardi Trophy a year ago, the Packers scored 10 touchdowns on 14 postseason tries.
In 2011, the Ravens have 19 touchdowns in 41 trips inside the red zone, a conversion rate of 46.3 percent. In Sunday's 24-10 victory over the Cleveland Browns, they were 2-for-5.
"A couple of the teams we've played lately are playing great red-zone defense," coach John Harbaugh said of the Browns and the San Francisco 49ers. "But, that's not going to be a reason for us not to do well. We did what we had to do the last couple of games down there. But, heck yeah, we want to score more touchdowns down there all the time."
That is easier said than done, though, when 22 large, athletic men squeeze inside the red zone. As the field gets shorter, passing windows tighten and running lanes narrow.
Once the offense gets inside the 15-yard line, Flacco said, opposing defenses switch out of base defenses and either drop everyone into coverage or blitz heavily. Tight end Ed Dickson said receivers must respond by running "precise routes at precise depths." And when receivers aren't open, Flacco will often cautiously chuck the ball out of bounds.
"If they drop into coverage, you have to take what they give you," Dickson said. "We've got one of the smartest quarterbacks in the game, which is why we don't get those turnovers."
Flacco is just 15-of-44 in the red zone this season, according to CBSSports.com, but he has thrown six touchdowns and his lone turnover was a lost fumble back in Week 3.
"If there [are] little windows, then believe me, we take the chance and throw them in there," said Flacco, who hopes to pick apart the winless Indianapolis Colts' 31st-ranked red zone defense on Sunday, "because we have guys that can go up and make the plays."
The Ravens don't have a towering target who can post up in the corner of the end zone like Arizona's Larry Fitzgerald, or a dangerous dual-threat quarterback like Carolina's Cam Newton. But they feel they have enough weapons to score more touchdowns in the red zone.
"Anquan [Boldin] is a big, physical receiver. We've got two great tight ends that are doing very good things," said Dickson, referring to himself and Dennis Pitta. "And we can always run the ball down there with Ray Rice, one of the best running backs in the league. And watch out for Joe, he doesn't run the ball very often, but he can."
It wasn't pretty when Flacco last tried to run for a touchdown in a goal-to-go situation.
Facing 3rd and Goal in the second quarter of the 16-6 victory over the 49ers, the Ravens ran a quarterback draw — sloppy execution made it difficult to tell if it was intentional — and a wall of 49ers defenders toppled over on Flacco, dropping him at the 5-yard line.
Cameron has attempted trick plays, too. Rice threw a touchdown pass at the goal line to Dickson in Week 10. And on Sunday, the Ravens had two quarterbacks on the field at once. With Flacco lined up as a wide receiver, his backup, Tyrod Taylor, rushed for a two-yard gain.
With one of the NFL's best defenses, the Ravens have gotten enough points in the red zone from the reliable right foot of kicker Billy Cundiff to reach the final quarter pole at 9-3. But their struggles to score touchdowns are on their radar as the playoffs approach.
"We need to start getting more touchdowns," Cameron said. "Everybody understands that."
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