Despite challenges he didn't anticipate when training camp began, Offensive Coordinator Greg Roman is confident the run game will improve after the bye.
Running the football successfully is in Roman's DNA. Where he goes, a dynamic run game follows. In Baltimore, he's been the architect of a record-setting rushing attack that has been the NFL's leading rushing attack the past two seasons. In 2015, the Buffalo Bills led the league in rushing when Roman was their offensive coordinator, and during his time as the San Francisco 49ers' coordinator, they went to the NFC championship game three straight years with a dynamic running attack.
Through seven games, the Ravens have the NFL's third-best running attack (149.4 yards per game), thanks largely to Lamar Jackson, the league's ninth-leading rusher with 480 yards. But it's been a year of major adjustment for Baltimore's rushing attack. The running back room was decimated by season-ending injuries to running backs J.K. Dobbins, Gus Edwards and Justice Hill, and losing All-Pro left tackle Ronnie Stanley for another season was a huge blow to an offensive line that has seen three different players at right tackle.
Can the Ravens get more consistent production from running backs Latavius Murray, Devonta Freeman, Ty'Son Williams or Le'Veon Bell in the second half of the season? Roman pondered many things during the bye week, and when it comes to running the football, he usually finds an answer.
With the weather turning colder and more unpredictable, running the football will play a major role in Baltimore's fate. The Ravens are 5-2, but they will need to run the football consistently from this point, with plenty of smashmouth football left, including five games against AFC North opponents.
"Any team that can run the football has an advantage," Roman said. "It basically creates opportunities for everybody. This time of year, we really need to get our run game going. It opens up the play-action opportunities. Keeps the defense honest. Helps you control football games. That will never change, especially when you start getting in some of these inclement weather games. You've got to be able to control the game on the ground. Our guys are working hard on that. Knowing these guys, I think we really feel like we're going to keep improving in that area."
One key to the rushing attack improving could be Nick Boyle, perhaps the league's best blocking tight end who has not played since last year's season-ending knee injury. Boyle returned to practice Oct. 20, and while it remains to be seen if he will play Sunday, his presence as a blocker who can be moved around formations is an asset that Roman looks forward to utilizing again.
"Nick, obviously, has been a really good player for us," Roman said. "It was a big loss for us last year, but he's been really working to get back. I mean, Nick is a guy with a unique skillset that keeps getting better. We're just going to have to bring him into the fold gradually and get him to where he's feeling really comfortable out there so he can be Nick Boyle. That's really the focus today with him, but he's sneaky good in the passing game, too. He's a pretty complete player. We're looking forward to him getting healthy again."
Improving Third-Down Efficiency Is Point of Emphasis
Baltimore's offense enters Week 9 looking for consistency when it comes to turning third downs into first downs. The Ravens rank 23rd in third down conversion percentage (36.74%), compared to 48.52% last season when Baltimore ranked second in the league.
The Ravens are coming off a 41-17 loss to Cincinnati in Week 7 when they were just 4-for-13 on third down and didn't score after their opening drive of the second half. With Jackson, Marquise "Hollywood" Brown and Mark Andrews all having excellent seasons, the Ravens know they have enough weapons to perform better on third down.
"There's a lot of factors with that and we've just got to keep chasing it," Roman said. "It's not where we want it right now for sure. I think everyone understands the importance of it. I don't think there's any one thing we can pinpoint. We've just got to execute better on third-down situations, run and pass.
"Over the bye week, we were able to take a really hard look at ourselves, which was good. A chance to introspect a little bit. We've got to keep pushing the envelope to get better."
Ravens Look To Benefit From Wednesday's Padded Practice
Baltimore broke out the pads for practice on Wednesday, and Defensive Coordinator Wink Martindale was all for it. Tackling has been a problem for the Ravens throughout the season, and a practice with pads allowed players to focus on technique.
"I think it helped us, yesterday, practicing in pads, and just the emphasis on angles and feet and eyes," Martindale said. "Some of our missed tackles are coming where we're just trying to blow somebody up, where it's OK to just get them down – that's the biggest thing. So, we're going to continue to work on that and attack that every day. And if we get this defense tackling, watch out, because then you've got everything working, everything clicking."
Martindale said he had noticed sound fundamentals in recent practices from inside linebacker Patrick Queen, who has struggled to bring down ballcarriers in the open field.
"He's practicing better," Martindale said. "I'm excited for this game for him. And we move him around. He's not going to be locked in just at WILL (linebacker) and everything else. There are things that we do in our defense where we move guys around. But he's really come a long way just practicing football, and in the game, you're starting to see some of the success. I'm really looking forward to seeing him play Sunday."
Ravens Don't Want Dalvin Cook Heating Up
The Ravens will face one of the league's top backs Sunday in Minnesota's Dalvin Cook (98 carries, 444 yards, 4.5 yards per carry), who already has two 100-yard games. Cook has the speed to bounce outside, but his forte is between the tackles, where he often breaks the first tackle attempt. Martindale is a big fan of Cook's, although he won't be on Sunday.
"I think he's got great balance, and vision, and speed and power," Martindale said. "You want me to keep going?"
The Ravens are very familiar with the Vikings' offense, even though they don't face the NFC opponent offense. Minnesota's offensive coordinator is Klint Kubiak, son of former Ravens Offensive Coordinator Gary Kubiak.
"There's not a guy I respected more, who was an offensive coach, than Gary, and you can see he raised his son right [in] all the different ways," Martindale said. "You watch what he puts on tape, it's impressive."