Late for Work 12/29: Ravens' 2020 Rushing Attack May Be More Impressive Than Record-Setting 2019

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QB Lamar Jackson

Credit Greg Roman for Maintaining No. 1 Rushing Attack Despite Missing Key Pieces

The Ravens lead the league in rushing and have been especially dominant on the ground during their current four-game winning streak.

While the Ravens will fall short of the single-season rushing record they set last year, a case could be made that what they have done on the ground this season has been just as impressive, according to The Athletic's Jeff Zrebiec.

"The Ravens haven't had their All-Pro left tackle Ronnie Stanley since Week 8. They've started three different centers, three different right guards and three different right tackles through 15 games. They've recently been using an in-game rotation at right tackle," Zrebiec wrote. "And they haven't had arguably the best blocking tight end in the NFL, Nick Boyle, since he sustained a season-ending knee injury in Week 10. Remember all the angst about how the Ravens were going to be able to run the ball behind a patchwork offensive line and without Boyle?

"Since Boyle went down, the Ravens have rushed for 129 yards against the Tennessee Titans, 129 against the Pittsburgh Steelers (without Jackson and Pro Bowl fullback Patrick Ricard), 294 against the Dallas Cowboys, 231 against the Cleveland Browns, 159 against the Jacksonville Jaguars and now 249 against the Giants. The Ravens rushed for more than 200 yards just twice in their first 11 games. They've now done it three times in the past four weeks."

Zrebiec said much of the credit for the success of the Ravens' running game this season should go to Offensive Coordinator Greg Roman.

"Roman has caught a lot of criticism this season for the team's lack of development in the passing game. Much of it has been fair and probably deserved, but if you're going to criticize him for that, you sure as heck should be praising him for maintaining the league's top running game without several key pieces," Zrebiec wrote. "He's made several key adjustments throughout the year to accommodate for defenses selling out on the run and for the personnel the Ravens have lost. The Ravens are using an extra offensive lineman more. There's been more misdirection and they are running out of different formations. They also are running on the edges more."

NFL Network's Brian Baldinger highlighted some of Roman's creative run schemes and gave props to right guard Bradley Bozeman, saying he's the "best pulling guard in the NFL" and should have been a Pro Bowler.

"The Giants had no answer for this misdirection," Baldinger said. "But neither did the Browns, neither did the Jacksonville Jags. Nobody has an answer to it right now.

"If the Ravens get to the postseason. If they get to 11-5 and get to the postseason, good luck trying to stop this power running game of the Ravens. It is a dangerous, dangerous combination the way they're playing football right now. When you can run the ball like that, it doesn't take a whole lot."

Is the Ravens' Run-Heavy Offense Not Built to Win the Super Bowl?

It's a common belief that a strong running game is one of the keys to postseason success. However, history suggests the run-heavy Ravens are not built to win the Super Bowl. Well, recent history, at least.

"The Ravens' dominant run game should have them in prime position for a Super Bowl LV title ... if they were playing last century," NFL.com's Brandon Mendoza wrote. "Baltimore is running the ball on 54.5 percent of their offensive plays this season, a mark that 14 Super Bowl winners also hit during their roads to the Lombardi Trophy. However, 13 of those 14 teams won their titles in 1991 or earlier. The only outlier — the 2005 Steelers led by second-year QB Ben Roethlisberger.

"While the Ravens boast an NFL-best 177.8 rush yards per game, you have to go all the way back to the 1975 Steelers to find a team that rushed for at least 175 yards per game in the regular season and then won the Super Bowl."

The encouraging news for Ravens fans is that the title of the NFL.com weekly column is "NFL overreactions" and the description sarcastically notes that "numbers never lie — right?"

The numbers in this case are accurate, but what they suggest regarding the Ravens' Super Bowl chances might not be. Perhaps the reason no run-heavy team has won the Super Bowl since Gerald Ford was in the White House is because Lamar Jackson is an anomaly.

Jackson, the only quarterback to run for at least 900 yards in consecutive seasons, is 27-9 (.750) as a starter and the reigning league MVP. His overwhelming regular-season success hasn't translated in the postseason yet, but the sample size is small and he's just 23 years old.

As the NFL shifted from a run-heavy league to a pass-first league, the change was evident by which teams won the Super Bowl, as Mendoza's research shows. Perhaps Jackson is at the forefront of another shift, one that very well could be reflected by the next generation of Super Bowl winners.

Ravens Are Peaking at the Right Time

Although the Ravens entered the playoffs last season riding a 12-game winning streak, it could be argued that they may have peaked too early. During a three-game stretch in November, the Ravens averaged 45 points and their average margin of victory was 36.3 points.

This season, the Ravens (10-5), who will clinch a playoff berth with a win over the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday, are playing their best football in December and looking like the wild-card team no AFC division winner wants to see in January.

"The Ravens are peaking at the right time," NFL Network analyst Bucky Brooks said on the "Move the Sticks" podcast. "The Ravens are a scary team. … We could say that they're beating cupcake teams down the stretch, but they are playing the way that they need to play."

Daniel Jeremiah added: "They're a dangerous team. I know they haven't done well in the postseason previously, but I feel like they were kind of a marked man in the postseason with everybody gunning for them and all the expectations. They're playing with house money now. They're coming in as a wild-card team if they get in, and I think they will, and I think they're a little bit better positioned to kind of be hunters instead of being the hunted."

NFL Network analyst and former Ravens Head Coach Brian Billick said Baltimore is "definitively that team that nobody wants to play."

"I think they're the most complete, best team in the AFC right now," Billick said. "They are capable of this template all the way through the playoffs, and right now this team's playing confident, they're healthy, they've got the pedigree. I think will all due respect to Kansas City and in going through Kansas City, this is the most complete and best team in the AFC, and that's saying a lot because there's a lot of good teams."

Staying Focused Has Been Key Factor During Winning Streak

It's easy to point to the dominant run game and resurgent pass rush as the main reasons for the Ravens' winning streak, but there's also an intangible ingredient: focus.

Although it's a cliché, the Ravens have taken it one game at a time since a three-game losing streak dropped their record to 6-5 and put their playoff chances in jeopardy.

"For weeks, Baltimore's players insisted they would keep their entire mindset on their games, even though they needed help elsewhere," ESPN's Jamison Hensley wrote. "And, for weeks, the Ravens have taken care of their own business better than any other playoff contender outside of Kansas City."

The Ravens, who are 11-point favorites over the Bengals (4-10-1), don't need reminders not to overlook any opponent. But if they did, they'd look no further than the past two weeks, when the New York Jets beat the Los Angeles Rams and Cleveland Browns, and the Bengals knocked off the Pittsburgh Steelers. Moreover, no Ravens fan will forget the team being denied a playoff berth in 2017 due to a stunning Week 17 loss to the Bengals on a 49-yard touchdown pass on fourth-and-12 with 44 seconds remaining.

If the past four weeks are any indication, there will be no letdown in Cincinnati.

"In their past four games, the Ravens have beaten the Cowboys, Browns, Jaguars and Giants by a combined score of 148-86 — a 15.5-point average margin of victory," Hensley wrote. "Baltimore is in position to return to the playoffs because it never got ahead of itself."

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