During the clutch moments of Sunday's victory, Devonta Freeman and Le'Veon Bell made their biggest impact since joining the Ravens.
Both veteran running backs were at the best during the fourth quarter and overtime when the outcome of Baltimore's 34-31 victory was being decided. Freeman finished with a season-high 79 yards on 13 carries, while Bell had a season-high 48 yards on 11 carries.
When it mattered most, Freeman and Bell helped the Ravens cross the finish line, taking the baton from Lamar Jackson, who carried Baltimore's rushing attack (120 yards on 21 carries) for much of the game. For those questioning how much juice Freeman and Bell have left, Sunday's game was a retort.
"I thought our running backs played great today; don't you think?" Head Coach John Harbaugh said. "Our running backs really stepped it up today and played great football. The offensive line, they started wearing those guys down, and we started running. … We ran the ball to win the game at the end."
Freeman scored Baltimore's first touchdown Sunday as a pass-catcher, flaring out of the backfield to catch a 5-yard toss from Jackson.
However, Freeman and Bell on the ground were Baltimore's bread and butter down the stretch. In the fourth quarter, the Ravens went on a seven-play, 61-yard scoring drive to take their first lead, and either Bell or Freeman carried the ball on five plays.
After Freeman went off left tackle to gain eight yards, Bell took over with three straight carries that gained 23 yards. Then after Jackson almost scored on a 10-yard run, Bell pounded the ball in from the 1-yard line. Patrick Ricard, Eric Tomlinson and Trystan Colon threw blocks that caved in Minnesota's defensive line, and Bell burrowed into the end zone.
Freeman and Bell came up big again on a 10-play drive in overtime that set up Justin Tucker's decisive 36-yard field goal. Freeman exploded off left guard for 19 yards, moving the ball from Baltimore's 42-yard line to the Vikings' 39. That already put Tucker in range, but Bell helped moved the NFL's best kicker even closer with a physical 12-yard run.
Freeman provided a spark earlier in the game during a key play in the third quarter. On fourth-and-2 from Baltimore's 36-yard-line, Harbaugh made the gutsy decision to go for it with the Ravens already trailing, 24-10. Had they been stopped on that play, perhaps the Ravens never would have recovered.
But Freeman showed good burst by darting outside for an 8-yard gain, and the Vikings were penalized for unsportsmanlike conduct for chirping at Freeman from the bench after he was forced out of bounds. The Ravens went on to score during that drive, pulling to within 24-17, and the rally was on.
"Those guys were just doing what they're supposed to – run the ball, catching stuff. They were doing their thing tonight," Jackson said.
Minnesota entered the game with the 21st-ranked run defense and the Ravens offensive line won the battle in the trenches, wearing down the Vikings as the game progressed. It remains to be seen how effective Baltimore's run game will be against other opponents remaining on a schedule, including two games against the Cleveland Browns, who have the league's third-ranked run defense.
However, the Ravens coaching staff spent ample examining their run game during bye, looking for ways to create more running room for the backs. Against Minnesota, Freeman and Bell gave the Ravens what they were looking for.
"I think any team that can run the football has an advantage," Offensive Coordinator Greg Roman said last week. "It basically creates opportunities for everybody. This time of year, we really need to get our run game going. It opens up the play-action opportunities, keeps the defense honest [and] helps you control football games – that will never change."