Eisenberg: Even With Marshal Yanda Hurt, Ravens Must Remain Committed to Running

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After suffering the serious ankle injury that knocked him out for the rest of the 2017 season Sunday, Marshal Yanda walked off the field.

The cart didn't come out. Yanda didn't lean on a shoulder as he hopped on his good ankle. He just took a slow walk to the bench. On a fractured ankle.

Everyone already knew Yanda, an All-Pro guard, is among the toughest guys ever to play for the Ravens. His season-ending walk will further burnish his legend.

The Ravens will sorely miss that toughness. Although NFL teams match wits and complex strategies, it's a rugged sport and some games boil down to nothing more than who is tougher. Yanda led the way for the Ravens.

They'll also miss his leadership. Think about it: With Yanda gone, who becomes the offensive line's elder statesman? In terms of playing time here, it's James Hurst, the former undrafted free agent now starting at left guard.

Inevitably, the NFL cognoscenti are speculating that the Ravens offense could be in trouble without its interior anchor. There's certainly cause for concern.

I don't know how the coaches will respond to the challenge, and they're certainly not going to ask for my input, but if the waters parted and they did, I'd say this:

Whatever you do, continue with the same, strong commitment to your running game that you've shown in the first two games.

It's making a huge difference for the offense, and I do believe it can continue to be a positive factor, even without Yanda.

Yes, Head Coach John Harbaugh said it was the passing game that "made the difference" Sunday against Cleveland. Joe Flacco effectively orchestrated a blueprint of quick routes. Benjamin Watson was so open over the middle you almost wondered if the Browns actually were trying to cover him.

But the running game had a major hand in Watson's being so open. The Ravens were having enough success on the ground that Cleveland's linebackers had to bite whenever Flacco went to hand the ball to a back, only to pull it away. The football term is "play-action." It froze the linebackers long enough for Watson to run by them into the clear, with the safeties playing miles back.

Play-action fakes didn't work so well for Flacco a year ago, when the Ravens finished No. 28 in the league in rushing. But the fakes are working now and should continue to work if the Ravens stay committed to their ground game.

Sure, it's far to wonder whether the Ravens can continue to average 146.5 rushing yards per game without Yanda. But the running game is a collaboration, not a one-man show. That was never more apparent than a year ago, when the Ravens achieved that No. 28 ranking while Yanda earned All-Pro honors. Obviously, he couldn't do it himself.

Now the situation is flipped. Yanda is gone, but the cupboard isn't bare elsewhere on the line. Ronnie Stanley is a first-round draft pick. Austin Howard is a non-inexpensive free agent. Hurst and Ryan Jensen are big guys who have worked their way into starting jobs.

On Sunday, Howard gave an outstanding all-around performance, according to Pro Football Focus. Hurst and Stanley graded high as run blockers. Watson and his fellow tight end Nick Boyle, were the Ravens' top performers on either side of the ball, according to PFF.

That's the core of the run-blocking unit. "The whole offensive line played extremely well," Harbaugh said Monday.

A strong defense certainly makes it easier for a team to stay committed to its running game. The Ravens should be in fewer situations in which they need to pass, i.e., more games in which they're either ahead or close. They haven't trailed yet in 2017.

But regardless of the circumstances, Greg Roman has infused the ground game with fresh ideas, new energy and more confidence. That was quite a moment Sunday when the Ravens faced a third-and-5 situation late in the third quarter and calmly picked up the first down on a Buck Allen run. Wait, what?

That happened, by the way, long after Yanda walked off the field.

I'm sure the Ravens will pass the ball and get their wide receivers more involved as the season unfolds. But that process, and really, everything on offense, will go smoother if they continue to pound the ball on the ground.

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