Group ef­fort

Baltimore Sun - - COMMENTARY - By Jeff Zre­biec

Asked early in train­ing camp for his thoughts on a run­ning-back-by-com­mit­tee ap­proach, Justin Forsett joked that he didn’t know what that even meant. Six weeks later and two days af­ter he re-signed with the team fol­low­ing his sur­pris­ing re­lease, the veteran Ravens run­ning back was es­sen­tially asked the same quest i on, and again feigned ig­no­rance.

“What’s t hat again?” Forsett said Wed­nes­day, flash­ing a sly grin. “I think we went over that be­fore.”

The run­ning­back-by- com­mit­tee ap­proach, in which coaches di­vide touches among ball car­ri­ers, is loathed by most NFL run­ning backs, who want to stay on the field, get the ma­jor­ity of the car­ries and stay in rhythm with the of­fense. It’s also a night­mare for fan­tasy foot­ball own­ers who don’t know which back to in­clude in their Line: by 3

lineup on Sun­days.

How­ever, it’s be­com­ing more and more pop­u­lar in the NFL as or­ga­ni­za­tions seek to keep their top run­ning backs healthy and fresh, and pro­vide dif­fer­ent looks to op­pos­ing de­fenses.

“There are not too many guys in the league that will be the clas­sic 300-plus carry guys. That’s just not the kind of league we are right now,” said for­mer Ravens coach Brian Bil­lick, now an an­a­lyst for NFL Net­work. “Most teams are go­ing to do it in com­bi­na­tion. Yeah, you’d like to have a guy good enough to come in there, get hot and be that dom­i­nant guy. I don’t know that a lot of teams have that dom­i­nant guy.”

When they open the reg­u­lar sea­son Sun­day against the Buf­falo Bills at M&T Bank Sta­dium, the Ravens are ex­pected to get all three of their healthy run­ning backs — Forsett, Ter­rance West (North­west­ern High, Tow­son Univer­sity) and Buck Allen — in­volved in the game plan. Rookie fourth-round draft pick Ken­neth Dixon would have likely had a sig­nif­i­cant role, too, but he’s side­lined with a knee in­jury.

“I think the bot­tom line is we have some idea in how we want to work them in and ro­tate them, and then we will adapt to the game con­di­tions and see where it goes,” of­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor Marc Trest­man said Thurs­day. “I ex­pect to see all the guys play­ing and in there at some point in time.”

Af­ter a 2015 sea­son in which they set a fran­chise low with 383 rush­ing at­tempts and fin­ished 26th in the NFL by av­er­ag­ing 92.4 rush­ing yards per game, the Ravens made fix­ing their run­ning game an of­fen­sive pri­or­ity. Coach John Har­baugh has said since early in the off­sea­son that the team will stay with the hot hand at run­ning back and that could change from game to game.

Forsett, the only back on­theRaven­sroster who has had a 1,000-yard sea­son, said he’ll start Sun­day. West, the team’s most ex­plo­sive ball car­rier this pre­sea­son, will likely be the sec­ond back into the game. Allen, a good re­ceiver out of the back­field, could have a role on third downs. Full­back Kyle Juszczyk also might be used on third downs be­cause of his pass-pro­tec­tion abil­ity.

Har­baugh ac­knowl­edged the fine line be­tween get­ting ev­ery­body in­volved and pre­vent­ing backs from get­ting into the flow of the game.

“If things don’t go well, if we play too many guys, it is be­cause we didn’t let a guy get into a rhythm. If we play one guy, it will be be­cause we didn’t give a guy a chance,” Har­baugh said.

“You un­der­stand how that works, and in the end, wis­dom is in the re­sults. We will all be judged how well we run the ball as a group. My goal is for all those guys to have suc­cess run­ning the ball. I think they all bring some­thing dif­fer­ent to the ta­ble, style-wise, abil­ity-wise. Those are all things that we can uti­lize, and it should to be our Ter­rance West, shown in train­ing camp, said “It’s tough get­ting in a rhythm” when run­ning backs come on and off the field, but “I’m go­ing to make the best out of ... how many plays I have.” ben­e­fit to have mul­ti­ple good play­ers back there car­ry­ing the foot­ball.”

The Ravens have tra­di­tion­ally leaned heav­ily on one ball car­rier, but that’s pri­mar­ily be­cause they had a Pro Bowl­cal­iber back. Ja­mal Lewis, the team’s all-time lead­ing rusher, had at least 300 car­ries in four of the five sea­sons with the Ravens in which he played more than 12 games. Af­ter be­com­ing the full-time starter in 2009, Ray Rice av­er­aged 277 car­ries over the next four sea­sons.

Lewis spoke many­times dur­ing his ca­reer about how he needed to get into the flow of the game and be given the op­por­tu­nity to wear down de­fenses. Dur­ing his best sea­sons with the Ravens, he turned mod­est gains early in games into long runs in the fourth quar­ter once the de­fense was tired.

How­ever, things have changed sig­nif­i­cantly since he re­tired af­ter the 2009 sea­son, and those changes go be­yond of­fenses be­com­ing much more pass-ori­ented.

In 2010, seven backs had 300-plus car­ries, and 11 had at least 260 rush­ing at­tempts. Last sea­son, the Min­nesota Vik­ings’ Adrian Pe­ter­son was the only back to have more than 300 car­ries and only five backs had at least 260.

Teams re­ly­ing on two backs is hardly a new phe­nom­e­non. But these days, partly be­cause of at­tri­tion, more teams are get­ting three backs in­volved. Last year, 13 teams had three backs with at least 45 car­ries. In 2010, only six teams could say that.

As coach of the New York Jets from 2001 to 2005 and the Kansas City Chiefs from 2006 to 2008, Herm Ed­wards didn’t worry about divvy­ing up car­ries. He had Cur­tis Martin with the Jets and Larry John­son with the Chiefs. John­son had 416 car­ries dur­ing the 2006 sea­son.

“I once asked Cur­tis how he feels af­ter 20 car­ries. And he said, ‘Coach, I don’t get warmed up un­til I have about 25,’ ” said Ed­wards, now an an­a­lyst for ESPN. “When you pla­toon them, it’s OK. But the only way you can do it and make it re­ally work, you’ve got to get first downs. If you don’t get enough plays, it be­comes bad. It works if you get a flow go­ing. If you don’t, you’re go­ing to be stuck with one or two guys at most.”

Ed­wards said the run­ning-back-by-com­mit­tee ap­proach not only can chal­lenge backs to find a rhythm, but that it also puts pres­sure on a quar­ter­back who needs to ad­just to who is in the game, where the back wants the hand­off and how quickly each back gets to the ball.

As a Cleve­land Browns rookie in 2014, West shared car­ries for the first half of the sea­son with veteran Ben Tate and Isa­iah Crowell. He ac­knowl­edged Thurs­day that it is tough for a back to play one series and then have to go to the side­line while an­other en­ters the game.

“I’m not go­ing to sit here and lie to you. It’s tough get­ting in a rhythm,” he said. “A run­ning back has to feel the game out. But right now, I’m just tak­ing ad­van­tage of the op­por­tu­nity. When my num­ber is called, I’m go­ing to make the best out of the one play, or three plays, or how many plays I have.”

West said he be­lieves the Ravens will prove to have one of the top run­ning-back groups in the NFL. Forsett also cred­ited the mem­bers of the run­ning-back group for push­ing one an­other for the bet­ter­ment of the team.

“Who­ever is in the game, we’re root­ing for each other,” Forsett said. “We­want them to do well. I’m push­ing for those guys, and they’re push­ing for me. It’s all hands on deck. Whenever your num­ber is called, go out and per­form, and that’s what we’re go­ing to do.”

KKEENNNNEETTHH KK.. LLAAMM//BBAALLTTIIMMOORREE SSUUNN

Sea­son opener Sun­day, 1 p.m. TV: Chs. 13, 9 Ra­dio: 97.9 FM, 1090 AM Ravens Ter­rance West, be­ing tack­led by the Steel­ers’ Robert Golden in the Ravens’ 20-17 vic­tory in De­cem­ber, is one of three run­ning backs the Ravens are likely to use Sun­day.

KEN­NETH K. LAM/BAL­TI­MORE SUN

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