Running Game Gears Up For December

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Ravens fans saw it last weekend in a 48-3 win over the Detroit Lions – a return to the smash-mouth rushing attack that pounded an opponent into submission.

December seems like the perfect time for such a game plan, especially with the Chicago Bears and a 24th-ranked run defense that allows 127.9 yards per game coming to town.

Over the past three years, the Ravens have been a bully during the holiday season, as Baltimore's run game has flourished when the weather gets cold and nasty. The Ravens have averaged 158.0 yards per game on the ground dating back to 2007, which is the NFL's top-ranked unit.

The Ravens also own 16 rushing touchdowns in December during that span, which is tied for second in the league (San Diego has 17).

When confronted with those statistics, guard Ben Grubbs blinked in amazement.

"If you hadn't told me that, I would never have known," he said on Wednesday. "In any game, you want to pound the ball. That's our mindset. It's our job to execute, and I guess we're executing in December. It's cold outside, and it makes it hurt so much more when it's cold outside. Every hit is doubled. We love it whether it's cold or warm weather. I think it's an offensive lineman's dream to run the ball like that."

The Ravens showed they could still grind out yardage against the Lions.

Ray Rice posted a career-high 166 yards and a touchdown on only 13 carries, popping off runs for 59 and 52 yards. Willis McGahee added 76 yards and two scores on only 12 carries. And, fullback Le'Ron McClain, last year's leading runner, pitched in six attempts for 32 yards.

Add in a few scattered touches from a slew of other players, and the Ravens totaled a whopping 308 rushing yards and a franchise-record five rushing touchdowns.

The focus on pounding the ball opens up opportunities in the passing game for quarterback Joe Flacco.

"When you get those long runs, that's huge for your offense," Flacco said. "It gets you going. Usually, when we have our running game going, we're wearing you down, wearing you down, wearing you down."

Running the ball in December starts up front with the offensive line. In the Detroit game, the Ravens moved Michael Oher from right to left tackle and placed backup Oniel Cousins at right tackle. Then, 315-pound lineman Chris Chester went in regularly as an extra tight end.

The Ravens simply moved the line of scrimmage as their backs moved the ball.

"We want to be physical," said head coach John Harbaugh. "That's really important in the National Football League. We want to be physical running the ball, and we want to be physical throwing the ball. And we think you can be physical throwing the ball, too. We've said that before, but we don't ever want to lose our ability to run the ball.

"You do need to run the ball when the weather gets a little bit worse. We want to be an all-weather offense. That's something that Cam [Cameron, offensive coordinator] talks about a lot. And of course, that means running the ball. But you've got to be able to throw the ball in December, too, and you've got to be able to make plays in the passing game."

But when the weather turns sour and the wind is howling, as so often happens late in the year, the passing game is undoubtedly affected.

Flacco certainly has a strong enough arm to cut through the elements, but teams typically want to reduce the amount of times a quarterback lofts the ball downfield in unpredictable conditions.

Running backs must also be wary of the weather because snow and rain can make the football slick. Ball security is a must, as Rice demonstrated when he fumbled away possession on the Ravens' opening drive last Sunday.

"It makes it a little tough on the passing game sometimes, especially if you get the elements combined with the wind," explained Harbaugh. "That makes throwing the ball and catching the ball a little bit tougher. But part of the challenge is to compete against and defeat the elements.

"But we'll practice with wet balls, we'll practice outside as much as we can, and you've got to be prepared to defeat the elements as well."

Chicago has been susceptible to the run recently, giving up 158 and 135 rushing yards to the Green Bay Packers and St. Louis Rams, respectively, over the past two games.

In preparation for the Bears' defense, the Ravens practiced outside on Wednesday, but then brought things inside the fieldhouse at team headquarters in Owings Mills, Md. on Thursday.

According to Weather.com, Baltimore can expect snow on Saturday, which will give the Ravens' grounds staff time to clean up M&T Bank Stadium by Sunday.

But in the doldrums of Weeks 14-17 that come each year, it's difficult to predict what the weather will bring on game day.

The Ravens, at least, believe they'll be prepared for anything.

"When it's late in the season, other teams tend to be beat up," McGahee noted. "Nobody wants to tackle when it's cold outside, and the running game can get going.

"We have a challenge in front of us. We have to play fundamental football. As long as somebody is getting the ball, I'm OK with it, whether it's Le'Ron, Ray or me. The productive group is the running backs. We are doing our thing right now."

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