No simple solution for struggling run game
Team’s 3.0 yards per carry ranks just 29th in league
There are plenty of theories and opinions about what ails the Ravens running game. The one thing that everybody seemingly agrees on is that it needs to get a whole lot better if the Ravens are going to be a playoff team.
An offseason spent trying to fix a static run game has yielded less-thanimpressive results. Heading into their Week 3 matchup against the winless Jacksonville Jaguars at EverBank Field, the Ravens are averaging just 81.5 rushing yards per game and 3.0 yards per carry. Those numbers rank 23rd and 29th, respectively, in the NFL. They are also one of nine teams without a rushing touchdown.
The Ravens’ struggles to run the football, which date to last year, have marred the team’s first 2-0 start since 2009.
“We want that to be a factor,” coach John Harbaugh said Wednesday. “We want people to have to deal with it. That’s what’s important for us right now.”
The Jaguars, who have given up 245 rushing yards through two games, provide the latest opportunity for the Ravens to fix
something that has traditionally been one of the team’s strengths. However, much work is required, and when the team’s longest run in two games is an 11-yard gain by wide receiver Mike Wallace on a jet sweep, it’s clear there is no simple solution.
Harbaugh listed a litany of things that needed to improve for the team to run the ball more successfully, from more cohesive blocking up front, to better schemes, to Justin Forsett and Terrance West (Towson University, Northwestern High) doing a better job of finding holes and making tacklers miss.
“You have to pop a run here and there and be consistent with a number of runs over 4 yards per carry. We haven’t really done either well enough,” Harbaugh said. “It’s not easy, because people are determined to stop the run, but we are determined to run the ball.”
In the past 13 games, dating to last year, the Ravens have rushed for 100 yards or more only twice and they’ve averaged 4.0 yards a carry or better only three times. Harbaugh and the offensive staff, led by play caller Marc Trestman, spent the offseason making some alterations to a run game that averaged just 92.4 rushing yards per game and 3.9 yards per carry.
The noticeable differences have been more outside pitch plays and less running between the tackles. According to Pro Football Focus, 22 of the Ravens’ 49 running plays, not counting quarterback Joe Flacco’s five rushing attempts, have been either to the left or right edge.
Flacco conceded that the team is “doing some different stuff and it probably isn’t giving our linemen the best chance to be super physical.” He said the goal has been to keep defenses off balance, and he predicted big runs would pop soon.
Other observers wonder what happened to all the outside zone stretch running plays that worked so well for the Ravens in 2014, when Gary Kubiak was directing the run game. The Ravens finished eighth in the league in rushing that year.
“Right now, I’m not understanding their philosophy. It’s hard for me to do that because I’m not there. I’m not in the huddle or in their meeting rooms. But I don’t see them getting any movement up front,” said former Ravens tackle Jonathan Ogden, a Pro Football Hall of Famer. “It always seems like there is a breakdown somewhere. … It’s not like it’s all five guys playing poorly, just one guy breaking down on one play, and another guy breaking down on another.”
Like Ogden, former Ravens offensive lineman Wally Williams was confused by the lack of stretch plays.
“I think the Ravens have given up on them,” said Williams, who runs an offensive line performance school for high school, college and NFLlinemen in Arizona. “That in itself is a problem because you can’t keep pressure on a defense unless you show them the full resume of running plays, and I’m not seeing different types of plays.”
Right guard Marshal Yanda, a five-time Pro Bowl pick, said Wednesday that the team hasn’t abandoned the zone scheme but that it has tried to diversify its running attack.
“We’re not running as much, but we are definitely doing more than just the stretch-zones scheme,” he said. “When Gary was here, we were doing that exclusively. We’re definitely trying to switch it up and do a little bit more gap scheme, a little bit more tight zone along with the stretch. We’re definitely throwing a few wrinkles in there.”
The Ravens haven’t had much success running in any direction, though they’ve particularly struggled up the middle. According to Pro Football Focus, they’ve had 18 total rushing attempts up the middle or between the center and right guard, and they’ve gained 45 yards on those.
Pro Football Focus’ numbers reveal the team has had the most success running to the left side, behind rookies Ronnie Stanley and Alex Lewis. They are averaging 4.6 yards in carries behind the left tackle and 4.0 in rushing attempts between the left tackle and guard.
Veteran center Jeremy Zuttah called the team’s struggles to run the ball a “combination of everything.”
“Some of the runs when you’re going a little up-tempo have been a little bit different than stuff we had been running, but it’s the same overall concept,” Zuttah said. “I think everybody just has to do everything a little bit better.”
Some of the team’s challenges in the run game will be hard to fix immediately. While both Stanley and Lewis have played well, there’s an adjustment period that comes with having two new starters. With Crockett Gillmore not 100 percent healthy and Nick Boyle on the suspended list for the first 10 games, the Ravens don’t have a prototypical blocking tight end on the roster. They also don’t have a game-breaking running back, though Forsett and West are plenty capable of making plays.
Some of the onus falls on Trestman, who has a reputation as a pass-first offensive coordinator. In his 13 seasons as an offensive coordinator or head coach, his running game has finished higher than 16th only once, according to ESPN.
Through two games, the Ravens rank 13th in rushing attempts, so the effort to establish the run has been there. The production hasn’t.
“Everybody wants to point the finger at somebody, but it’s a collective effort,” Forsett said. “We’ve all got to do our job. When it’s a successful run game, everybody is doing their job.”
Justin Forsett is driven toward the sideline by the Bills’ Duke Williams. “We’ve all got to do our job,” Forsett said of the run game.
Quarterback Joe Flacco (5) hands the ball off to running back Terrance West. The Ravens’ struggles to run the football have marred the team’s 2-0 start.