Any concern about the Ravens running attack this season should include some perspective.
The Ravens still have the NFL's fourth-best rushing attack averaging 148.8 yards. They have the most dynamic running quarterback ever in Lamar Jackson, and he forces opponents to load the box or risk being tormented by his running ability. Baltimore also has a creative run game designer in Offensive Coordinator Greg Roman, a person whose playbook never stops growing.
However, the Ravens were held to 86 yards rushing Monday night, ending their league record-tying streak of 43 consecutive games with at least 100 yards rushing. The Ravens averaged 185.3 yards rushing and 5.7 yards per carry during their first three games, but have fallen off to 94.0 yards rushing and 3.4 yards per carry during the last two games.
On Sunday, the Ravens face the Los Angeles Chargers (4-1), who have the NFL's lowest-ranked rushing defense, allowing 157.6 yards per game. Some look at Sunday's game as an opportunity for the Ravens' rushing attack to get well against a porous run defense. But for Roman, the bottom line is to win, whether the Ravens move the ball most effectively via the ground or through the air.
"I think we gameplan for everything; a heavy pass game and a heavy run game," Roman said. "As the game unfolds, that's where we make our right and left turns as it goes."
Asked about the recently slowed running game specifically, Roman said each play needs to be examined to determine when it worked or didn't work.
"Some of it is on me. I have to maybe run different runs and that kind of thing," Roman said. "Some of it is, we have to get better in certain areas. But the other answer could be, I'm just setting the people up to throw it."
According to Next Gen Stats, the Chargers have been most vulnerable to inside runs, which is where the Ravens have been most effective. Even against stacked boxes with at least eight defenders, Baltimore has averaged 5.9 yards per carry, tops in the NFL. Meanwhile, when the Chargers stack the box, they have allowed 6.1 yards per carry, which is last in the league.
After watching Jackson carve up the Colts through the air, the Chargers face a dilemma. If they don't crowd the line of scrimmage, the Chargers may not be able to handle the Ravens on the ground. A re-ignited Ravens running attack could be a game-changer. It would help prevent the Chargers' pass rush led by Joey Bosa from teeing off on Jackson. It would also help the Ravens win time of possession, and keep the Chargers' high-powered offense led by quarterback Justin Herbert off the field.
Baltimore's two most recent opponents, the Denver Broncos and Colts, often loaded the box and challenged Baltimore to beat them through the air. But the Chargers have relied on a dramatically different approach against other teams this season. They have had at least eight defenders in the box just 9% of the time, and the league average is 24%.
The Chargers are 4-1, but their defense was shredded in Week 5 when they defeated the Cleveland Browns in a wild 47-42 decision. Los Angeles gave up 531 total yards and 230 yards rushing, including 161 yards by Nick Chubb. Bosa said the Chargers' defense lost too many battles up front.
"We have to be more physical on blocks," Bosa said via the Chargers’ website.
Bosa said most of the Chargers' attention would be focused on Jackson and his ability to be a catalyst as both a runner and passer. The Chargers bottled up Jackson as a rookie during a 2018 Wild Card playoff game, holding him to 248 total yards during a 23-17 Chargers victory. However, Jackson is an even better player now, one who Bosa holds in high regard.
"He's probably the most dynamic player in the NFL when he gets the ball in his hands," Bosa said. "That's what we're going to need to stop. I think we have a good plan this week. That's the main focus is stopping him with the ball.
"It's always fun playing a guy like that. That's sarcastic fun. This is no easy game playing Lamar and the Ravens."
The Ravens had a dominant, league-leading rushing attack in both 2019 and '20, setting the NFL team single-season rushing record in 2019. But their offensive personnel is dramatically different this year. Running backs J.K. Dobbins and Gus Edwards are out for the season, superb blocking tight end Nick Boyle is still on injured reserve, and All-Pro left tackle Ronnie Stanley (ankle) has not played since Week 1.
Murray, Le'Veon Bell and Devonta Freeman were all signed after training camp, joining Williams in a running back rotation that has been forced to learn Baltimore's offense on the fly. For the Ravens to have the fourth-best rushing attack in the league is an accomplishment, but a decrease in explosive running plays after losing both Dobbins and Edwards was to be expected.
The Ravens would like to see their running game become more consistent as the season progresses, and the coaching staff learns more about each running back's skillset. Jackson attempted a season-high 43 passes Monday night, but Roman did not say the Ravens' offense has evolved into "Air Jackson". The Ravens had little choice but to air things out after falling behind 22-3 to the Colts, but Baltimore is still committed to its running game. They're just searching for ways to make it more effective, and that process will continue Sunday.
"We're going to run the football," Roman said. "We can change gears. We can change personalities, hopefully, just like that. (snaps his fingers) We're going to run the football and do things to complement that. But that's something that we just have to keep hammering away at."