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Eisenberg: Investing in the Running Game Might Be the Smartest Move of All

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As free agency nears, the local football conversation is focused on how the Ravens are going to mount a more effective passing attack going forward.

They ranked No. 29 in the league in passing in 2017. They obviously need to do better.

Meanwhile, no one is talking about how they’re going to address what was their offensive strength last season -- their rushing attack.

The subject deserves more consideration.

It appears the Ravens are transitioning to a more run-centric offensive philosophy, which, by the way, is fine with me. The framework for a productive ground game seemingly is falling into place. With a few key moves in the coming months, that ground game could develop into a real powerhouse.

I’m not suggesting the Ravens are going to, or should, abandon their quest to significantly upgrade their complement of receiving targets. A lack of playmaking cost them dearly in 2017. They need to address that shortcoming in both the draft and free agency.

But even if their passing attack improves in 2018, it won’t be more than a 50-percent stakeholder in the offense. The Ravens have learned the hard way in recent years that they probably shouldn’t stray too far from their roots as a run-oriented team.

They strayed big-time in 2016 when they bizarrely led the league in pass attempts while ranking No. 28 in rushing. It didn’t feel right and prompted the hiring of assistant coach Greg Roman, a run-game expert.

Year One of Roman’s revitalization project went well, for the most part. The Ravens ranked No. 11 in rushing in 2017, up significantly from the year before. They also jumped from No. 30 in rushing attempts in 2016 to No. 7 in 2017, signaling buy-in from Offensive Coordinator Marty Mornhinweg on the idea of re-emphasizing the run as part of re-establishing a sound offensive balance.

Roman’s baby wasn’t perfect, mind you. The Ravens ranked No. 19 in yards-per-carry average (4.0) and weren’t that explosive, producing just eight runs of 20 or more yards – only seven teams had fewer.

Overall, though, considering where the running game was a year earlier, it was a vast improvement. And it happened even though the Ravens lost both starting guards to injury, causing a major shuffle up front. They also didn’t identify a No. 1 back until Alex Collins took command midway through the season.

Now, Roman has received a promotion, indicating his stature is rising, presumably along with that of the area he oversees. That and several other developments point to Year Two of the run-game project possibly going even better.

For starters, Collins has emerged as a prime playmaker, with Buck Allen a solid No. 2 back and Kenneth Dixon looming as another possible puzzle piece.

Then there’s the line, which could be a real strength. Injuries to Marshal Yanda and Alex Lewis forced other players to step up. Now, Yanda and Lewis are returning to a mix that includes Matt Skura, Austin Howard and Nico Siragusa as well as Ronnie Stanley, with pending free agents Ryan Jensen and James Hurst also still possible returnees.

On top of all that, many 2018 mock drafts have the Ravens selecting an offensive tackle in the first round. If that happens, the Ravens’ run-game bona fides heading into 2018 would be impossible to ignore.

Revitalizing the passing game won’t be as easy. Although the Ravens are determined to do it, this year’s crop of free agent receivers isn’t overwhelming, and the draft is deep in receivers deemed of second-round and third-round caliber.

Don’t worry, there’ll still be additions; I’m expecting a major overhaul of Joe Flacco’s targets. But it’s asking a lot to expect the new group to just roll in and immediately start cranking out big plays.

Meanwhile, the ground game could be on the verge of something special, especially if the Ravens bring back Jensen, who will be costly but excelled in 2017. They could also bolster the effort by drafting a running back in a high round; the impact of picks such as Ezekiel Elliott and Leonard Fournette illustrates what can happen.

Given the direction the Ravens are moving in, investing picks and dollars in the running game might be the smartest move of all.

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