Eisenberg: Ravens Must Get More From Their Rushing Game

RB Latavius Murray

You've had a good bye weekend when you wake up on Sunday in second place and wake up on Monday in first place.

The Ravens experienced the pleasure of moving up in the standings without playing a down last weekend when the Jets shocked the Bengals.

I'm guessing it calmed some of the nervousness that roiled Baltimore a week earlier after the Bengals routed the Ravens. That was disturbing and left the Ravens with issues to address, but as the Bengals learned Sunday, it's a long season and stuff happens.

A good team usually is OK if it can move on and eventually solve its problems to some degree. As Calais Campbell said so eloquently after the loss to the Bengals, "We can't let this game beat us twice."

That they've reclaimed first place in the AFC North doesn't alter the fact that the Ravens have issues to address coming out of the bye. They need to defend the pass better, limit big plays and tackle way better. They lead the NFL in missed tackles and most yards after catch allowed, according to Pro Football Reference.

"Until we get that fixed, we'll be a very mediocre defense," Head Coach John Harbaugh said of the tackling.

But if you operate on the assumption (as I do) that even good defenses give up yards and points in 2021, I'd highlight an issue on the other side of the ball as equally important.

The Ravens absolutely must get more out of their rushing game.

I'm talking about the non-Lamar Jackson rushing game, i.e., the conventional part, with backs carrying the ball.

With Jackson's 480 yards included, the Ravens rank No. 3 in the league in team rushing, which looks good. But the four backs on the roster have combined for just 535 yards while averaging 4.1 yards per carry, which is below the league average (4.3). That figure is even lower against stout defenses.

When the ground game is a nonfactor, defenses can focus on containing Jackson, pay less attention to play-action fakes and fortify their secondary. Baltimore's offense was thrown out of whack when the Bengals, who have one of the league's top rushing defenses, shut down everyone other than Jackson on the ground.

The Colts, who rank No. 9 in fewest average yards per carry allowed, also shut down the Ravens' ground game while building a 22-3 lead in Week 5. Although Jackson saved that day (night, actually) with a superhero passing show, you can't count on that every week.

So far in 2021, the quality of the opposing rushing defense says a lot about how the Ravens' games unfold.

The Bengals and Colts posed problems, but the Ravens ran up big offensive totals while beating the Chargers and Chiefs, who rank near the bottom in rushing defense. The Raiders are also near the bottom, and the Ravens rushed for nearly 200 yards and had a late win in hand until the defense collapsed.

Coming out of the bye, two of the Ravens' first three opponents, the Vikings and Bears, rank in the bottom quarter of the league in average yards per carry allowed. It seems like an opportunity to get the rushing game on track again.

The opponent likely wouldn't matter as much if the Ravens were utilizing their original blueprint for the rushing game, which had Ronnie Stanley and Nick Boyle blocking for J.K Dobbins and Gus Edwards. That "A" game has steamrolled pretty much everyone.

But injuries have resulted in a Plan B featuring a reconfigured line blocking for a crew of veteran backs.

Latavius Murray has run tough inside, but he's only averaging 3.6 yards per carry. Devonta Freeman has shown explosiveness at times, but he only has 20 carries. Yardage outside the tackles has been tough to generate.

"We just have to block better, scheme better, run better," Harbaugh said.

There are reasons for optimism. Boyle, a key figure, seemingly is almost ready to return. Offensive Coordinator Greg Roman is adept at drawing up productive running plays.

Of the Ravens' remaining opponents, only the Browns and Bengals rank in the top quarter of the league in rushing defense.

If better days for the ground game return, you watch, the payoff would be sweet.

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