When the Ravens became a run-first team after their bye week, it didn't take long to sell the idea to Pro Bowl guard Marshal Yanda.
"We're running the ball like 40-plus carries a game – sign me up! Let's go" Yanda said. "It's been great though. Obviously, in the end we are winning – that's the most important thing. If we have to pass the ball 50 times, run the ball 50 times, as long as we're winning, and we're here in January – that's the ultimate goal. No complaints."
There haven't been any complaints, as the Ravens have run their way into the playoffs with the entire offense buying into the system. Dynamic rookie quarterback Lamar Jackson and running backs Gus Edwards and Kenneth Dixon have gotten most of the glory, but there have been plenty of unsung heroes.
The offensive linemen love firing off the ball, but they have also been forced to learn new blocking schemes. The tight ends have been asked to block more often and with more physicality. And the wide receivers have sacrificed pass-catching opportunities.
It has come together quickly, with Baltimore going 6-1 and leading the NFL in rushing during Jackson's seven games as a starting quarterback. The Ravens open the playoffs Sunday against the Los Angeles Chargers, and how far the Ravens go could largely be determined by how well they run the football. With an opportunity to win a championship, wide receiver Michael Crabtree says this is no time chase statistics. It's time to chase a ring.
"I'm fine with it. I can't complain about anything," Crabtree said. "I'm just in it to win it. I want to win a championship, bro. I'm going to do whatever it takes. I'm not in it for spoiling the locker room, wanting the ball, this and that, talking about this and that. I just want to win, man. We all stay positive and move forward; that's all we've been doing – especially in the wide receivers room. Yeah, we want the ball, but, shoot, we know what's at stake."
Jackson has not attempted more than 25 passes in any of his seven starts, as the Ravens have plowed into the playoffs with a run-heavy offense that no opponent has been able to contain. It's a different approach to what's trendy in the NFL. Over the last three weeks, the Ravens threw the ball 36.7 percent of the time. The next closest team was the Seattle Seahawks, who threw it 45.37 percent. Of the league's 32 teams, 25 threw the ball at least 55 percent of the time.
Making the running game work effectively, week-to-week, has taken a collaborative effort from coaches and players, particularly Assistant Head Coach/Tight Ends Greg Roman, who is the architect of many of the run schemes. Tight end Nick Boyle said Roman adds blocking schemes and new formations every week, making it difficult for opponents to counter. The system also takes advantage of the different skill sets offered by Baltimore's four-deep tight end group of Boyle, Mark Andrews, Maxx Williams, and Hayden Hurst.
"It's been extremely fun for all of the tight ends," Boyle said. "I wouldn't want to be on defense trying to defend all the things we give them to look at. Greg Roman does a good job of being really creative. It's interesting to go in on Wednesday's and see what he has dialed up."
Andrews said Roman's system isn't easy to learn. It required extra study for him, especially for a rookie.
"When I first got here, and I'm sure for Hayden too, everything kind of sounded like a foreign language," Andrews said. "Tight ends have to know so much. It took a while to figure out what all the calls meant, but now I'm settled in. I think everyone feels that way. You can see how well we're executing."
Even heading into the playoffs, the Ravens' offense continues to evolve. There will surely be some new wrinkles Sunday against the Chargers, with the Ravens facing a team they just played two weeks ago.
"It's been a work in progress – a lot of work," Head Coach John Harbaugh said. "We spend a whole bunch of time in the meeting room. Those guys spend a whole bunch of time in walk-throughs, because you can't rep all that stuff out here. You can't even come close to scratching the surface with the number of reps we get in practice, compared to what we ask our guys to do in games. They've been phenomenal – all the guys: tight ends, wideouts, running backs, all of them. But it definitely starts with the offensive line, and yes, I would agree that they've done a great job with that."
The Ravens believe their running game has not reached its peak, despite rushing for a season-high 296 yards Sunday against the Browns. Could the Ravens produce a 300-yard rushing day in the playoffs? None of the players would be against it. They are riding the run-first offense led by Jackson as for as it will take them.
"[Jackson] is back there doing his thing," Crabtree said. "I'm riding with him 110 percent, just like everybody else on the team."