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Ravens could be looking for running back help in NFL draft

Standing inside a hallway at Lucas Oil Stadium last week, coach John Harbaugh delivered a blunt assessment of one of the Ravens' thorniest issues.

Upgrading the running game ranks atop the Ravens' agenda following a frustrating season in which they were consistently stonewalled upfront and finished 30th in the NFL in rushing offense.

Running backs Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce were both affected by injuries and a lack of consistent blocking all season. And Rice's offseason has been marred after being charged with simple assault-domestic violence this month following an incident at an Atlantic City casino.

The Ravens have enough questions with their running game that the answers may come in this year's draft.

"I think the whole thing just needs an overhaul," Harbaugh said Friday at the NFL scouting combine. "It was a myriad of things. We didn't block people well. We didn't move people. We didn't get on people. ... Our backs both weren't 100 percent and they didn't make enough guys miss, didn't break enough tackles.

"So the yards weren't there. We also didn't throw well enough to get people out of single-high, press man [coverage]. We were always pretty much regularly going up against a heavy box, so that compounded a problem. We were probably a throw to set up the run offense the last 11, 12 games and we didn't throw the ball well enough to set up the run. We just didn't get the job done."

The Ravens gained a franchise-record low 1,328 rushing yards last season, averaging 3.1 yards per carry with just seven touchdown runs. Rice rushed for just 660 yards for the season, a career low as a starter.

Hip and quadriceps injuries slowed Rice, and he also played 10 pounds over his listing playing weight (207 pounds), according to Harbaugh. Meanwhile, Pierce, who recently underwent rotator cuff surgery on his right shoulder that's expected to sideline him until the start of training camp, averaged just 2.9 yards per run as he finished with 436 yards.

As a result, the Ravens could turn to the NFL draft for a complementary back. The Ravens met with several top running back prospects last week at the combine.

The Ravens offense will be led by new offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak and Thomas Hammock, who replaced Wilbert Montgomery as running backs coach. A running back who would fit into Kubiak's zone-stretch system would be decisive, have speed and power.

"We need a guy who puts his foot in the ground and goes north and south," Harbaugh said. "To me, that fits this scheme. You really don't need a dancer. You don't need a sideways runner, although [Kansas City Chiefs Pro Bowl runner] Jamaal Charles has been in this system. He runs north and south, but he's fast as heck around the edge. It doesn't have to be a certain big guy, little guy, fast guy, slow guy.

"It's all different types of backs. We want to get a good guy with good vision who will run hard and protect the football. Ray can do it, Bernard can do it, but we're looking for more backs. We want to add some backs."

That doesn't mean the Ravens are moving on without Rice at this point. The Ravens continue to stand behind Rice as he awaits the result in his case. Rice and his fiancee, Janay Palmer, were both arrested and charged with simple assault on Feb. 15.

Harbaugh said Saturday any desire to bolster the running game isn't a reaction to Rice's case.

"That's unrelated," Harbaugh said. "I just don't feel like two runners was enough. The circumstances kind of led us to that with our roster. We never felt like we wanted just two runners. We definitely need three, and it could be four of them."

At the combine, the Ravens met with running back draft prospects Terrance West (Towson), Carlos Hyde (Ohio State), Ka'Deem Carey (Arizona) and Andre Williams (Boston College).

One free agent who might be a good fit for the Ravens because of his tackle-breaking presence is New England Patriots running back LeGarrette Blount. The 6-foot, 250-pounder rushed for 772 yards and seven touchdowns in seven starts last season.

The Ravens could also consider West.

West rushed for 2,509 yards and scored 42 touchdowns last season as Towson made it to the Football Championship Subdivision championship game. If the Ravens go with a college back, retired r Dallas Cowboys general manager Gil Brandt said, West would be the best fit for Kubiak's system, which Arian Foster thrived in with the Houston Texans.

"I think West is a heck of a running back," Brandt said. "This guy, this is a man. I think he's pretty good."

The 5-foot-9, 223-pound Baltimore native boosted his draft stock with a respectable 4.54 time in the 40-yard dash. He had 13 formal meetings with NFL teams at the combine.

"He ran pretty well," NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock said. "Heavy production, great vision and balance. I thought he'd [run slower], so I do think he helped himself."

This draft class is regarded as deep at the running back position, including Tre Mason (Auburn), Bishop Sankey (Washington), Jeremy Hill (LSU), Charles Sims (West Virginia), James White (Wisconsin), Antonio Andrews (Western Kentucky), Jerick McKinnon (Georgia Southern) and Lorenzo Taliaferro (Coastal Carolina).

"The Ravens could definitely use a running back with how things went last season and what's going on with Ray Rice," said former NFL scout Bucky Brooks, an NFL Network draft analyst. "They've got to get Joe Flacco some help and get that running game going."

Last year, no running backs went in the first round.

Five were drafted in the second round: Giovani Bernard (Cincinnati Bengals), Le'Veon Bell (Pittsburgh Steelers), Montee Ball (Denver Broncos), Eddie Lacy (Green Bay Packers) and Christine Michael (Seattle Seahawks).

The Ravens probably won't have to rush to find a running back if they add a rookie.

"Their impact on their two teams was significant," Mayock said of Bernard and Lacy. "I just think that it's a pass-first league now. So, you're seeing a lot of different draft picks getting pushed up ahead.

"I think this running back group is talented, is deep and you kind of have to filter through it to see who you like because there are a lot of different flavors out there depending on what kind of offense you run."

awilson@baltsun.com

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