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Turn the calendar, it's time for the Ravens' running game to find its stride

The Ravens have not been impressive on the ground, but they might have to be as the weather turns wintry.

Terrance West wasn't going there. The Ravens had just beaten the Cincinnati Bengals to move into a first-place tie with the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC North. Anything beyond that, and that included a question Sunday about whether the coaching staff showed enough commitment to the run game in the victory over the Bengals, was irrelevant to him.

"Whether we ran the ball or didn't run the ball, we came away with the win," West said. "So let's keep it positive and keep it going."

As they prepare for Sunday's game against the Miami Dolphins at M&T Bank Stadium, the key components of the Ravens' running game aren't consumed by what has or hasn't happened through the season's first 11 games. They're not hung up on the team's poor NFL ranking in rushing yards per game, yards per carry and rushing touchdowns. The weekly debate of 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 on Thursday, 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 star who leads the Ravens with 600 rushing yards and four touchdowns. "This is when running backs come up big in big games."

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

In recent weeks, the Ravens have at least started to develop some 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 with West and rookie Kenneth Dixon emerging as the two main ball carries.

An offensive 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, there have been moments in their past three games against the Bengals, Dallas Cowboys and Cleveland Browns that 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 also wavered throughout the season, as evidenced by the Ravens' 267 rushing attempts. Only eight teams have ran 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.

"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, the rookie fourth-round pick who has averaged more than five yards per carry over his past three games. "Every game, they give us a little bit more opportunity and we take advantage of it."

Dixon's expanding role and improved health is certainly one reason for optimism. He missed the first four games with a partially-torn medial collateral ligament 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 on 11 touches in the Nov.10 victory over the Browns. Against the Cowboys, he popped a season-long 20-yard run. And last week, he rushed for 49 yards and caught four balls 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 head coach John Harbaugh feels has benefited the team.

"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 them has played a lot of football. Of course, 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 pass protection, which is not easy for a young back. They're doing a good job."

Harbaugh also 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.

Meanwhile, in the past two games, West has 21 carries 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.

Both in terms of production and usage, it's been divided pretty evenly. There's been no indication that will change any time 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."

jeff.zrebiec@baltsun.com

twitter.com/jeffzrebiecsun

Sun reporter Edward Lee contributed to this story.

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