Ground game shap­ing up at just the right time

Baltimore Sun - - NFL & RAVENS - Jeff.zre­biec@balt­sun.com twitter.com/jef­fzre­biec­sun Bal­ti­more Sun re­porter Ed­ward Lee con­trib­uted to this ar­ti­cle.

in rush­ing yards per game, yards per carry and rush­ing touch­downs. The weekly de­bate over whether the Ravens are run­ning the ball enough hasn’t taken over the run­ning back room, where the mantra is “con­trol what you con­trol.”

The cal­en­dar will of­fi­cially turn to De­cem­ber to­day, and that means colder weather, well-worn fields, and tired and banged-up de­fenses. If there ever was a time for the Ravens’ much-ma­ligned run­ning game to hit its stride, this would be it.

“This is the best time of year for run­ning backs,” said West, the for­mer Tow­son Univer­sity and North­west­ern High star who leads the Ravens with 600 rush­ing yards and four touch­downs. “This is when run­ning backs come up big in big games.”

Dixon’s ex­pand­ing role and im­proved health are cer­tainly rea­sons for op­ti­mism. He missed the first four games with a par­tially torn MCL in his left knee. He was ten­ta­tive in his first three games back, but he’s looked more and more ex­plo­sive the past three weeks.

He had 80 all-pur­pose yards on11­touches in the Nov. 10 vic­tory over the Cleve­land Browns. Against the Dal­las Cow­boys, he had a sea­son-long 20-yard run. And last week, he rushed for 49 yards and caught four passes for 31 yards.

In re­cent weeks, the Ravens have di­vided the car­ries al­most evenly be­tween West and Dixon, a night­mare for their fan­tasy foot­ball own­ers but an ar­range­ment that Ravens coach John Har­baugh be­lieves has ben­e­fited the team.

“What­ever it takes to win, if it’s get­ting the run­ning game go­ing, I feel like we’re ready for it. We’re ready to tote the load,” said Dixon, a fourth-round pick who has av­er­aged more than 5 yards per carry over his past three games. “Ev­ery game, they give us a lit­tle bit more op­por­tu­nity and we take ad­van­tage of it.”

The Ravens have av­er­aged 104 rush­ing yards over the past three games. It might not seem like much, as 17 teams are av­er­ag­ing more over the sea­son. For the Ravens, though, it qual­i­fies as progress. They fin­ished with un­der 100 rush­ing yards in six of their first eight games.

In re­cent weeks, the Ravens have at least started to de­velop co­he­sive­ness on the ground. The com­pe­ti­tion for car­ries, which has also in­cluded Buck Allen, Lorenzo Tali­a­ferro and, to a lesser ex­tent, full­back Kyle Juszczyk, has es­sen­tially been set­tled in fa­vor of West and Dixon.

“Both those guys are go­ing to be so im­por­tant for us,” Har­baugh said. “Both run­ning backs are get­ting bet­ter ev­ery sin­gle week. They’re both young guys. Nei­ther one of themhas­playedalot of foot­ball. Of­course, Kenny is a rookie. They’re start­ing to re­ally get their feet un­der them, so to speak, and they’re mak­ing some plays for us. They run hard, they’re not easy to bring down, they catch the ball. They’ve both been solid in In re­cent weeks, the Ravens have di­vided their car­ries al­most evenly be­tween Terrance West, left, and Ken­neth Dixon. pass pro­tec­tion, whichis­noteasy­for a young back. They’re doing a good job.”

Har­baugh cau­tioned not to dis­miss Allen or Tali­a­ferro. Allen, though, doesn’t have a carry in four of the past five games. Tali­a­ferro re­mains side­lined with a thigh in­jury.

Anof­fen­sive line that has been shuf­fled all year be­cause of in­juries is pre­pared to start the same align­ment against the Dol­phins for the third straight game. While the Ravens have yet to take over and put away a game with their rush­ing at­tack, mo­ments in their past three games against Cincin­nati, Dal­las and Cleve­land sug­gest they’re at least ca­pa­ble of such a per­for­mance.

“You see week af­ter week af­ter week, we’re just im­prov­ing lit­tle by lit­tle,” rookie left tackle Ron­nie Stan­ley said. “It’s just lit­tle things here and there that will re­ally tie that run game down.”

Said right tackle Rick Wag­ner: “I think we’re run­ning the same plays over and over, so we’re go­ing to even­tu­ally get those big runs that we’ve had in the past, and we’ll just keep at it. You’re not go­ing to have a great run ev­ery time. So I think it’s about stay­ing with it.”

Op­ti­mism aside, the Ravens are still ranked 28th in rush­ing yards per game(87.8), 29th in yards per carry (3.6) and 24th in rush­ing scores (six). The com­mit­ment to the run has wa­vered through­out the sea­son, as ev­i­denced by the Ravens’ 267 car­ries. Only eight teams have run the ball less.

How­ever, Ravens coaches and play­ers seemed to un­der­stand Wed­nes­day that es­tab­lish­ing the run will be a ne­ces­sity over the fi­nal five games. This Sun­day, they’ll face a Dol­phins team that ranks 30th in the NFL against the run. The fol­low­ing week is a matchup against the New Eng­land Pa­tri­ots, and the Ravens will surely want to main­tain pos­ses­sion and keep the ball out of Tom Brady’s hands.

The weather and field con­di­tions might force the Ravens to rely more on run­ning the ball in their fi­nal three games, at home against the Philadel­phia Ea­gles and on the road against the Steelers and Ben­gals.

In the past two games, West has 21car­ries for 90 yards and four re­cep­tions for 27 yards. Dixon has 19 car­ries for 89 yards and four catches for 31 yards. West has played 46 snaps and Dixon has played 52.

In terms of pro­duc­tion and us­age, it’s been di­vided pretty evenly. There’s been no in­di­ca­tion that will change any­time soon and that’s just fine with West, who has started eight of the team’s 11 games.

“It’s go­ing to be great,” West said. “To get to the Su­per Bowl, you need to have a run­ning game. If you look at all the Su­per Bowl teams, you have to have two good backs to feed off each other. I think that’s what we’ve got.”

KEN­NETH K. LAM/BAL­TI­MORE SUN

Cow­boys (10-1) at Vik­ings (6-5) 8:25 p.m., NBC | This might be Dak Prescott’s best test yet, es­pe­cially with the game be­ing on the road. The Cow­boys are on a roll, though, and the Vik­ings will have a tough time keep­ing pace on of­fense. Cow­boys 24, Vik­ings 20

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