Ravens committed to reviving run game
OWINGS MILLS — Only two NFL teams ran the football fewer times than the Baltimore Ravens in 2016.
Baltimore’s 91.4 yards rushing per game ranked 28th in the league and its four yards per attempt ranked 21st. Its 367 rushes set a franchise low.
The Ravens have committed to turning their ground game around.
“It is a point of emphasis. We have been working really hard at it, and I like what we are doing,” head coach John Harbaugh said. “I like the way it is being coached, and I like the way the guys are working on the drills, and proof will be in the outcome.”
Harbaugh retained Marty Mornhinweg as offensive coordinator, but brought in Greg Roman as a senior offensive assistant and tight ends coach. Roman is known for developing some of the NFL’s best rushing attacks during his stints as offensive coordinator of the San Francisco 49ers and Buffalo Bills.
Roman is helping the Ravens implement downhill blocking and running schemes, as opposed to the zone techniques used in previous years.
“We’re putting our heads together on that as a staff, and I think it’ll adjust as we go,” Roman said. “I think they’re doing a remarkable job of picking it up.”
Terrance West, Baltimore’s starting running back, said Roman’s downhill scheme best fits his running style. The Baltimore native compared it to the offense he ran when he starred at nearby Towson University.
West led the Ravens with 774 yards on 193 carries last season. He scored five touchdowns and averaged a career-high four yards per carry.
West hopes to be Baltimore’s workhorse this year. He believes he gets stronger and stronger as games go on, making him the right man to feed the ball to.
“I would to love to have 30 carries a game,” he said. “As the game goes, I get stronger and stronger. I get to feel the defense out and see the linebackers pursuing the ball and get lanes for cutbacks.”
Running backs coach Thomas Hammock agrees that West can carry in bulk.
“Terrance, in college, I think he might have had 500 carries. I am exaggerating, but he certainly can handle the load. He has proven that,” Hammock said. “The thing that he is doing so well this year is he is bought into protecting the quarterback, which allows you to stay on the field longer and allows you to get more carries.”
Hammock may be exaggerating, but not grossly. West carried the ball 413 times his senior year, averaging more than 25 rushes per game.
West also noted pass blocking as his major emphasis of the offseason, along with conditioning. He claims to be 12 pounds lighter than he was a season ago.
West, 26, is entering his fourth season and second full year with Baltimore. He laid out his goals for 2017, a contract year for him.
“For us to win our division and get a run to the Super Bowl. For me, to get over 1,000 yards and get the run game back going,” West said. “I am from Baltimore, so I have been a Ravens fan all my life. We have to get this run game back going how it used to be.”
He compares himself to a certain running back who excelled under Roman.
“[Roman] was up there [in San Francisco] with Frank Gore, and that is who I com- pare my game to – like a Frank Gore-type guy,” West said. “He is patient. He has great vision, and people sleep on his speed. He can take it the distance.”
Gore was named to three Pro Bowls in the four years Roman was his coordinator. He scored 29 touchdowns in that span and rushed for 1,000 yards each season.
Roman wouldn’t compare the two players.
“I think Frank’s unique and his body of work speaks for itself. I think Terrance is pretty hungry to develop his own body of work,” Roman said. “Terrance has done nothing but impress me as a running back, as a teammate, just as a member of the team.”
Second-year back Kenneth Dixon had an impressive rookie season in which he came on strong late after missing the first four games games with a knee injury. He averaged 4.34 yards per carry and scored a pair of touchdowns.
Dixon seemed likely to challenge West for the starting job, but will miss the entire season after undergoing knee surgery.
His bad fortune presents Buck Allen with the opportunity to have a bounceback campaign.
Allen ran the ball 137 times for 514 yards and a touchdown as a rookie in 2015. He caught 45 passes for 353 yards and two more scores. Hopes were high for Allen in year two.
Instead, Allen only ran the ball nine times and gained 34 yards. He caught just three passes for 15 yards during his humbling sophomore season.
“Play more than I did last year,” Allen replied when asked what his goals for the upcoming season were. “I feel like this was the toughest – mentally – offseason I’ve put myself through. I know it’s going to pay off.”
Allen’s mentally draining offseason only got tougher when a close cousin passed away shortly before offseason practices began.
“He was pretty much my right-hand man when I was training. Wherever I needed him to be, he made his way there. To lose him right before minicamp was pretty tough,” he said of his late cousin. “I know for me, not having him there just made me want to push myself harder because I know that if he was there, he would push me.”
Allen was a healthy scratch from four games last season, but he never sulked over his reduced playing time. He saw the field primarily on special teams, but impacted a onescore win over the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Allen blocked a punt in the fourth quarter that was recovered and returned for a touchdown by Chris Moore. The Ravens went on to defeat Pittsburgh, 21-14.
“Last year during the season, I told Buck how proud I was of him for the way he handled playing the previous year and not playing as much last year,” Hammock said. “I think what you see from him is a guy that has matured. He has grown up, he has gotten stronger, he has done the things that he needs to do to put himself in a position to have a chance to be successful.”
Harbaugh said he speaks to Allen every day and that the third-year back understands the nature of the business. He expects “to see the best Buck Allen that we could see.”
Allen spent most of the offseason training in Tampa, Fla. He said his feet feel quicker than they did last training camp, and that he believes Roman’s system benefits his running style.
“We’re a run-to-daylight offense and I think he’s got good vision,” Roman said of Allen. “He’s got a lot of talent, so we’ll be able to use him in a lot of different ways. He’s definitely impressed, pretty much, on a daily basis.”
Baltimore signed free agent Danny Woodhead, who is one of just four players with at least 15 rushing and 15 receiving touchdowns this decade. Undrafted rookie Taquan Mizzell has also had an impressive training camp and is fighting for a roster spot, along with Bobby Rainey, who was signed shortly after Dixon’s injury.
Regardless of who is carrying the ball, one thing is certain: The Ravens plan to run it more this year.
“Every game is different,” Roman said. “You just don’t know how it’s going to unfold. We definitely want to be able to run it when we want to run it – when we need to run it. There’s definitely a commitment to running the football here.”
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Baltimore Ravens running abck Terrance West, right, runs for 35 yards before he is forced out of bound by Redskins’ Will Blackmon (41), left, during the Ravens’ first series of the game on Sunday, Oct. 9, 2016 in Baltimore.