Awakening of Running Game Could Carry Ravens Into Playoffs

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Since their bye, the Ravens have transformed their running game from dormant to dynamic.

In just two weeks, Baltimore has vaulted from 27th in the league in rushing to 11th. Gus Edwards has gone from seldom-used undrafted running back to consecutive 100-yard games. People knew Lamar Jackson could run before he became the starting quarterback. Now they really know.

Those who were starving to see the Ravens run the football more have been fed. For safety Eric Weddle, it has been fun to watch from the sidelines.

“Our offense presents a lot of problems with the different styles of run,” Weddle said. “With Gus and the way he runs the ball, and then you bring in Ty [Montgomery], ‘Buck’ [Javorius Allen] and obviously, with Lamar [Jackson] out there, it definitely puts some pressure on the opposing team. They can’t have any mess-ups. They can’t have a sack or penalty, because they’re not going to get the ball back for a while.”

Can the Ravens ride an effective running game to the playoffs? The answer is yes.

Here are the league’s top eight rushing teams in order – Seattle Seahawks, Los Angeles Rams, Carolina Panthers, Houston Texans, San Francisco 49ers, Dallas Cowboys, New Orleans Saints and Los Angeles Chargers. Of those eight teams, only the 49ers have a losing record. Six of those eight teams would make the playoffs if they started today.

The running game still matters, even in today’s pass-happy NFL. It matters even more in December and January when inclement weather can make throwing the football more challenging.

If the Ravens stick with Jackson as their starting quarterback, there is every reason to think their running game will remain a huge part of the offensive equation. Should Joe Flacco return as the starting quarterback, the Ravens will need to figure out how to run the ball better than they did the first nine games when Flacco was under center. The question is how much of Baltimore’s improved ground attack can be attributed to Jackson being under center.

Jackson has rushed for 190 yards over the last two weeks, the most by any quarterback in his first two starts during the Super Bowl era. If wide receiver John Brown is not the Ravens’ fastest offensive player, Jackson is. With him under center, the Ravens have a big-play threat who makes the defense react. The threat of Jackson as a runner, coupled with Edwards’ emergence as a power back who can break tackles, has created an effective thunder-and-lightning combination for the Ravens and a new set of problems for opponents.

“When you can establish the inside run, the perimeter offense, all the bells and whistles with Jackson, they’re very hard to defend,” said Oakland Raiders Head Coach Jon Gruden after the Ravens’ 34-17 win Sunday. “You’ve got to stop the inside run, or you have no chance to stop everything else. They took over the game.”

Granted, the Ravens’ last two wins have come against the Raiders, who rank 26th in total defense and the Bengals who rank last (No. 32). But four of Baltimore’s next five opponents also struggle defensively – the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (27th), Atlanta Falcons (28th), Kansas City Chiefs (30th) and Cleveland Browns (31st).

Running the football and keeping it away from explosive offensive teams like the Falcons, Chiefs and Chargers is not a bad strategy. If the Ravens control time of possession, they have a chance to avoid shootouts against three of the league’s best quarterbacks – Matt Ryan of the Falcons, Patrick Mahomes of the Chiefs, and Philip Rivers of the Chargers.

“You can certainly win without winning time of possession,” Ravens Head Coach John Harbaugh said. “But man, it makes a difference. Moving the chains, getting first downs. Hey, we’d like to be quick-strike, too. We’d like to have some lightning strikes and score some points that way, because in the end, it’s points that matter. I think it’s great for your defense not to have to play a lot of plays. That keeps them fresher, keeps them faster, puts pressure on the offense to force the issue sometimes. That’s big. When your opponent, the opposing offense, has a lot of plays, that’s tough on your defense.”

The offensive line is fired up about the recent run success. Against Oakland, the Ravens opened the second half with a 13-play, 75-yard drive that burned 8 eight minutes and 10 seconds off the clock. There were 12 running plays called on the drive, and just one pass. Right guard Marshal Yanda lit up when talking about it after the game.

“It was nice,” Yanda said. “We were just going to be committed to it. We were going to pound the rock and get after it. That kind of just set the course for the rest of the game.

“The threat of Lamar keeping the ball – running the football – that puts a lot of stress on the defense. That’s tough for them to defend, so I’m happy to see that we’re doing that and keeping them honest.”

Nobody is saying the Ravens can’t run the football effectively anymore. The awaken of the running game is a potential turning point in the Ravens’ season.

“If you’re a defense preparing for [Jackson], you basically just have to pick and choose what you think is going to happen, and you never really know,” Ravens linebacker C.J. Mosley said. “You’re guessing all game. Our offensive coordinator (Marty Mornhinweg) has done a great job of calling plays and using Lamar’s versatility. We really feel good about it.”

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