Eisenberg: The Key To Another Ravens Playoff Season

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The Ravens excelled in ground-and-pound football last season. They ranked eighth in the league in rushing offense and fourth in rushing defense.

Only four other teams, including two Super Bowl contenders, the Dallas Cowboys and Seattle Seahawks, had single-digit rankings in both categories. (The New York Jets and San Francisco 49ers were the other two.)

Repeating that proficiency in both aspects of the ground game – running the ball and stopping the run – is, in my opinion, the launching point for another playoff-caliber season in Baltimore.

Everything starts there.

It's easy to forget that when developments involving the passing offense and passing defense have dominated the Ravens' offseason.

Defensively, the top item on their to-do list was solidifying a secondary that experienced a rash of injuries and struggled badly in 2014.

Offensively, the team selected pass-catchers with its top two draft picks, certainly an indication of organizational emphasis. And because of the absence of hitting in Organized Team Activity and minicamp practices, the passing game inevitably became the focus. At times, these sessions almost seemed like something out of a passing camp, with all eyes on the quarterbacks, receivers and pass defenders.

Then there's the fact that the Ravens have gone from an offensive coordinator with a ground-oriented history (Gary Kubiak) to one with a long history of developing passing games (Marc Trestman).

You get the picture. The passing offense and passing defense have dominated the spring and summer news cycle.

But once the fall hits, the Ravens will rely on their ground games as cornerstones.

That's not the case for every team in what is always seemingly becoming more of a passing-mad league, but it's certainly true for the Ravens.

"It's who we are," Ravens Head Coach John Harbaugh said when he hired Trestman and fielded a question about continuing to commit to the run.

There's every reason to believe the rushing offense will pick up where it left off, as all of its functioning parts are back, including a line that received rave reviews, star runner Justin Forsett and fullback Kyle Juszczyk.

The No. 1 question is whether tackle Eugene Monroe and center Jeremy Zuttah are recovered from injuries in time to start the regular season at 100 percent, but if not, experienced reserves can step in.

Another question is whether Forsett can replicate his breakout season, which resulted in a trip to the Pro Bowl and a nice, new contract, but he's clearly driven to prove he wasn't a one-hit wonder.

It will be interesting to see whether Trestman stays committed to the run when it struggles, as it inevitably does at times. 

When Kubiak was in charge, you could almost hear him chanting, "We're going to run it, we're going to run it." I thought his clear-eyed philosophy was a key to the Ravens' success in 2014, with its renewed emphasis on the team's physicality and toughness, its trademark attributes. Trestman brings a different mindset, but he has hinted from the outset that he is well aware of what makes the Ravens tick.

The soundness of the rushing defense has been a talking point since the team traded Haloti Ngata to Detroit in March. Ngata had anchored the defensive interior for almost a decade, a period that included a 44-game stretch of not allowing a 100-yard rusher a few years ago and then a 26-game stretch of such shutouts through the end of last season.

The first commandment of Ravens football, seemingly forever, has been "Thou Shalt Stop The Run," which not only discourages opponents but also makes defending the pass so much easier.

The job now falls to a new generation led by nose tackle Brandon Williams and tackle Timmy Jernigan, with a host of others in support. Attention certainly will be paid to how they fare without Ngata. 

I don't know how long the 100-yard shutout streak will last, but I'm optimistic about Williams and Jernigan being stout enough to maintain the Ravens' typical caliber of rushing defense. When the 2014 season ended, Williams was fast emerging as one of the league's top young nose tackles.

Obviously, the passing games (offensive and defensive) will also go a long way toward determining how the Ravens fare in 2015. Football at this level is a complex beast, with all factors intertwined. A solid pass defense helps the run defense. And of course, the Ravens only go as far as quarterback Joe Flacco takes them on offense. But everything rests on a foundation of solid ground games.

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