The Baltimore Ravens won the Super Bowl last year thanks largely to a strong running game. They ranked 12th in the league with 4.3 yards per carry and Ray Rice had another solid season, piling up 1,143 yards and nine touchdowns.
Things have gone in the opposite direction this season. Baltimore's running game is not only bad, it's on pace to set several records. Through nine games, the Ravens are averaging just 2.78 yards per carry. If they keep that pace up, it will be the lowest rushing average since the NFL-AFL merger. The record is currently held by the 1953 New York Giants (2.6 YPC). The Ravens could also become the first team since the 1994 New England Patriots to finish with less than three yards per carry.
Rice is having the worst season of his career. Through seven games, he has just 259 yards on 97 carries, good for 2.7 yards per carry. Rice suffered a hip injury in Week 2 and clearly hasn't been 100 percent this season, showing little of the agility and open-field burst that made him one of the most electric players in the league. Rice has yet to reach even 80 yards in a game after topping 100 or more four times last season.
His backup, Bernard Pierce, has fared no better. Last season, Pierce rushed for 532 yards on 85 carries and the two backs looked like a formidable 1-2 punch, but that hasn't continued into this year. Pierce has just 230 yards on 85 rushes while battling a hamstring injury.
The offensive line hasn't done Baltimore any favors. Bryant McKinnie struggled at left tackle before being benched for Eugene Monroe and later traded to the Miami Dolphins. Marshal Yanda, Kelechi Osemele and Michael Oher have all missed time with various injuries, and the unit as a whole has not been able to get on the same page.
All of this has culminated in a disappointing start for the defending champions. The Ravens are 3-5 and struggling to keep pace in the AFC North. They face the first-place Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday, who have the 10th-ranked rush defense in the league, but will be without Geno Atkins for the rest of the season. Will his loss be enough to finally get Baltimore's running game going? It's hard to say, but the Ravens are in real danger of missing the playoffs. The running game, once a point of pride in Baltimore, is now its biggest weakness.