Staying committed to running game a priority for Ravens

In his senior year at Towson University in 2013, Terrance West carried the football 413 times, averaging more than 25 per game. In three years in the NFL, the Northwestern High graduate has yet to reach the 200-attempt threshold in a single season and had at least 25 carries in a game just once.

So while the idea of being a bell cow running for the Ravens might sound far-fetched, West is enthusiastic about the possibility.

“For sure,” he said Monday. “I’d love to have 30 carries per game. That’s amazing.”

Whether the offense commits to that type of philosophy is another story. Since 2014, the team has handed the ball off to a running back 25 times only once (Justin Forsett on Oct. 1, 2015) and — under offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg — set a franchise record low of 367 rushing attempts last season, which snapped the previous low mark of 383 set in 2015.

Not coincidentally, the running offense produced the second- and third-worst rush-yard averages in team history in 2016 and 2015, respectively. The unit last enjoyed an average over 100 yards in 2014 when Gary Kubiak was the offensive coordinator.

But Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti and coach John Harbaugh insisted in the offseason that the team would prioritize fixing the rushing woes, and Greg Roman, the senior offensive assistant charged with reviving the run offense, repeated that stance Tuesday — with a caveat.

“I think that’s going to come down to really Marty and John, and every game’s different,” Roman said. “I think there’ll be some games when that definitely happens. You just don’t know how it's going to unfold. But we want to be able to run it when we want to run it, when we need to run it. So there’s definitely a commitment to running the football here."

In addition to the Ravens ranking 28th in the NFL in rushing last season, they were 30th in carries, ahead of only the Cleveland Browns and Detroit Lions (350 each). On the flip side, the offense led the league in passing attempts with 679.

In losses to the Dallas Cowboys, New England Patriots and Cincinnati Bengals, the offense was forced to abandon the run to try to bounce back from a deficit in the second half. But in setbacks to the Oakland Raiders, Washington Redskins and New York Giants, the team opted to rely on the arm of quarterback Joe Flacco despite owning a lead at halftime or in the second half.

Running backs coach Thomas Hammock said he has stressed to the players under his tutelage that they can help their own cause and sway Mornhinweg by making tacklers miss or churning out more yards after contact. But he acknowledged that the team’s philosophy can’t be solely pass-driven.

“Running the football is hard at any level, but it is a softening process, and you have to be committed to softening the defense and then in the fourth quarter you can have a chance to make yards, create big plays, explosive plays for the offense,” Hammock said. “But you have to have patience, and you have to be committed to it.”

Quarterback Ryan Mallett pointed out that success in the running game can benefit the passing attack.

“If you run the ball, you can set up play-action, and it makes the defense soften up a little bit,” he said. “So it’s very important to run the ball.”

A run-heavy philosophy would fit what Roman employed with the San Francisco 49ers and Buffalo Bills. In five seasons combined as offensive coordinator with those teams, his offenses ranked in the top eight in the NFL in rushing although they were paced by speedy quarterbacks Colin Kaepernick and Tyrod Taylor.

Buck Allen, who is now West’s backup, said he likes what he has seen from Roman.

“Just the way he is coaching the offensive line, coaching the fullbacks and the tight ends,” Allen said. “We all work together as one unit. Without the fullback, this won’t get done. Without the tight ends, this won’t get done. Without the left guard, this won’t get done. It all is just coming together, and we are working as a unit and getting the job done. I have a great feeling about the run game.”

The running back group lost a key cog when second-year pro Kenneth Dixon tore the meniscus in his left knee before training camp. He will miss the upcoming season.

But Dixon’s absence might’ve indirectly sparked his teammates. After being underutilized last fall, Allen has run decisively in his move to No. 2 on the depth chart, and West estimates that he shed 12 pounds in the offseason to handle the anticipated workload of being the featured back.

Last year, West averaged 8.6 yards against the Redskins, 3.8 against the Giants and 5.3 against the Cowboys, but did not break the 100-yard barrier as the offense strayed from running the ball. West expressed his preference to continue carrying the ball later in games.

“As the game goes, I get stronger and stronger,” he said. “I get to feel the defense, the way the linebackers are pursuing the ball, the lanes for cutbacks.”

It appears the offense has been calling more rushing plays in training camp thus far with selected drills concentrating solely on running the ball. But Harbaugh said the more accurate barometer will come in games when the players are being more physical against opponents.

“We will know when we get out there in the games and the preseason games and really into the regular season also, we will know for sure,” he said. “It is a point of emphasis. We have been working really hard at it, and I like what we are doing. I really do. 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.”

edward.lee@baltsun.com

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Staff writer Callie Caplan contributed to this article.

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