Eisenberg: 'Thou Shalt Run the Ball' Is Still Ravens' First Offensive Commandment


You may have noticed that a lot of the headlines coming out of the Ravens' training camp have focused on their passing game.

It's probably inevitable given their determination to improve an element of their offense that ranked No. 29 in the NFL last season. A lack of hard hitting early in camp also contributes to passing drills dominating the spotlight.

The emphasis is justified in that the quality of the passing game will have a lot to do with whether the Ravens return to the playoffs after missing three straight postseasons.

But at the same time, the intense focus on the passing game is a bit misleading because the running game – oh, yeah, that -- will still be the foundation of the Ravens' offense.

That doesn't mean they're going to run the ball more than pass it. Offenses don't operate that way anymore. Passing rules. League-wide, 42.4 percent of the offensive plays were runs in 2017. The Ravens operated right around the industry standard, running 43.6 percent of the time. I think it's fair to expect more of the same in 2018.

But even though they're going to pass more, the Ravens still consider "thou shalt run the ball" their first offensive commandment.

A solid ground game not only establishes who they want to be, i.e., a physical unit, but it also controls the clock and sets up everything they want to do in the air. Their play-action fakes work better when they're running the ball effectively. Defenses have no choice but to man up inside, giving the Ravens' receivers fewer defenders to beat.

If you're looking for a template, consider the Los Angeles Rams, currently in town for joint practices in advance of Thursday night's preseason game at M&T Bank Stadium. A year ago, the Rams finished No. 8 in the league in rushing, No. 10 in passing and No. 1 in scoring. As productive as their passing game was, running back Todd Gurley set it up to flourish.

And consider what Ravens Pro Bowl safety Eric Weddle told reporters yesterday: "Honestly, I think the hardest teams to defend are the teams that run the ball in play action and take shots. If you can't stop the run, it's going to be a long day on defense."

The Ravens re-committed to their running game a year ago after admittedly leaning too heavily on the pass in 2016. That year, they lead the league in pass attempts, only ran 34 percent of the time and finished No. 28 in the league in rushing.

The hiring of Greg Roman, the Ravens' assistant head coach and a noted run-game guru, helped get things back on track last year, as did the emergence of Alex Collins as a bona fide No. 1 back. The Ravens' ground game rose to a No. 11 league ranking, and that was with a relatively modest 4.0 yards-per-carry figure, so there's room for even more improvement.

With all that in mind, where DO things stands with the running game in 2018?

Collins, with his explosiveness, is entrenched as the starter; Kenneth Dixon's return is a plus but won't disrupt the top of the depth chart. Collins, in fact, wants more touches and may get them if he becomes a larger factor in the passing game.

The other foundational element of the rushing game is, of course, the offensive line, currently a work in progress but not, at least to me, an especially worrisome issue.

All-Pro guard Marshal Yanda has been cleared to practice, a huge development. He has undergone surgery on his ankle and shoulder since he last played, clouding the timeline for his return. Now it seems clear he'll be ready for the season.

Besides Yanda, Ronnie Stanley is set at left tackle, with Matt Skura and Alex Lewis likely to man the center and left guard spots in some combination. At right tackle, rookie Orlando Brown, Jr. is getting a long look and veteran James Hurst is ready if needed.

Things could change, especially if Brown is deemed ready to start, enabling Hurst to shift inside. But no matter who starts and how they're aligned, the Ravens believe Yanda's return alone should help the line improve upon last year's overachieving performance.

The framework of a quality rushing game is in place, which, in theory, would set up the improved passing game the Ravens desire. As always, the two elements are intertwined, so don't be fooled by the fact that you're hearing about one and not the other these days. Soon enough, that will change.

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