It seems that the Le'Ron McClain preseason tryout at tailback was more than just an experiment, as the 260-pound fullback was a main reason the Ravens defeated the Cincinnati Bengals 17-10 Sunday.
Faced with replacing Pro Bowl running back Willis McGahee (knee) in their 2008 opener at M&T Bank Stadium, the Ravens went to a two-headed monster throughout the game - and it was McClain that had the ball in the final minutes.
At the end of the day, Baltimore racked up 229 yards on the ground, the second-best team performance across the NFL's opening weekend, behind rookie Ray Rice's 64 yards (22 carries) and McClain's 86 yards (19 attempts).
But where it was the diminutive Rice moving the chains for the majority of regulation, the second-year player out of Alabama was featured in a critical fourth quarter.
"I'm a fullback first, just blocking and catching it in the flat," said McClain, who only carried the ball 37 times in college. "But, coach [offensive coordinator Cam] Cameron has confidence in me to run the ball, and he definitely gave it to me today.
"I was happy to do positive things with it."
The Ravens kept the ball for 13:17 of the final period. During that time, McClain rushed 12 times for 64 yards and five first downs.
He may not have scored, but his impact was paramount. Without possession, the Bengals' offense could only helplessly watch the seconds tick away with only a seven-point deficit.
"When you're getting those yards at 5 a carry on a defense, you know the 12- and 13-yard runs are coming," McClain said. "You just have to keep on working hard. We had been through everything, even going back to training camp. So, our key word was finishing. That's what we did out there."
Following a clutch fourth-down stop when defensive tackle Haloti Ngata stuffed running back Chris Perry for a 1-yard loss, the Ravens took over with just over seven minutes left in the game.
McClain and an offensive line that had been gritty all day went to work. This time, it was personal for the 2007 sixth-round draft pick.
On the previous series, McClain fell to the turf clutching his ankle after a hard hit. He immediately heard an earful from the Bengals defenders, who were "dog-cussing him and talking about his momma and everything," according to center Jason Brown.
"When I was laying on the ground, I thought something was really wrong with my ankle, but the pain eased off," McClain said Monday. "I just got up and came back to take it to him. I wanted to do my talking on the field."
The Ravens originally began using McClain and fellow 260-pound fullback Lorenzo Neal in the same backfield in mid-August, when McGahee's right knee required arthroscopic surgery and caused him to miss the entire preseason.
But before he could step into a more prominent role within the offense, McClain had to prove he could handle the workload after showing up to training camp out of shape, mainly because he took summer classes in Tuscaloosa, Ala.
"Here's a guy who came into training camp and had to work himself into shape and worked harder than maybe anybody throughout training camp to get himself ready to play in the opening game, maybe than anybody I've ever been around," said head coach John Harbaugh.
Growing into his added tasks, McClain showed a shiftiness that belie his size and blocking prowess, reminiscent of his days at Tuscaloosa County High School, where he averaged 6.5 yards a carry, posting 1,071 yards and 15 scores on 165 attempts as a senior.
"He was running north and south, and the ball was high and tight," Harbaugh noted. "He did a great job with it. He's a load, he's tough to tackle."
While McGahee actually suited up Sunday, it seemed that McClain and Rice were having so much success, the Pro Bowler wasn't needed. Baltimore totaled the sixth-most single-game rushing yards in franchise history.
Harbaugh said that McClain's workload will be determined within the flow of this weekend's battle with the Houston Texans. The Ravens hope to have McGahee back on the field, and then there is always Rice, the slippery second-rounder out of Rutgers.
"With all the backs, I think it's always going to be a situational ballgame," Harbaugh stated. "Each of [the running backs] has a certain skill set that you try to put in a situation where that skill set can thrive based on the game plan and game situation."