When it comes to the running game, three isn't a crowd

The Baltimore Sun

The three-headed monster the Ravens use at running back must resurface for the remainder of the season, because if it doesn't, the Ravens might be in big trouble.

The Ravens used their blueprint for success perfectly in the team's 27-13 win over the Dolphins on Sunday in Miami.

The Ravens ran the ball 35 times and threw only 23 passes. Rookie quarterback Joe Flacco threw safe passes, and the Ravens took advantage of Miami's aggressive defense with short throws, including several screens.

Running back Willis McGahee turned in a valiant effort with 105 rushing yards on 19 carries and two receptions for 47 yards. But this wasn't a vintage McGahee performance.

Something was missing; something is bothering him. When he is on, McGahee glides to a hole and then has a strong burst. He is a slasher but also has the ability to bounce outside, which all the good running backs have.

McGahee didn't have that bounce Sunday. He ran hard, but the acceleration wasn't consistent. There were times when he had that burst and other times when you waited for it, and waited, but it wasn't there.

It was never more evident than on that 35-yard screen pass McGahee caught early in the fourth quarter. A year ago, that would have been a touchdown. But McGahee was slow cutting back, and he fumbled at Miami's 5-yard line.

He looked tired, and your mind shot back to the offseason, when he missed several minicamps. You kept wondering: If he had reported to training camp in better shape, would it have made a difference on this run?

But there was more to it, possibly the eye, knee or rib injuries he suffered this season. McGahee is playing more on instincts than natural ability at this point.

"You know, I have more appreciation for that man than most people know," said an emotional Cam Cameron, the Ravens' offensive coordinator. "Willis had 35 cc's of fluid drained from his knee during the week, and he played with a lot of discomfort. He deserves a lot of credit."

It's highly unlikely we will see the same McGahee in 2008 that we saw last season, when he rushed for 1,207 yards on 294 carries. He had arthroscopic knee surgery during the first week of training camp, and his condition probably won't improve significantly until he gets extended rest.

Unfortunately, the Ravens don't have a bye. Fortunately, they have two good young running backs in rookie Ray Rice and second-year player Le'Ron McClain. They'll have to step it up a notch if the Ravens want to win.

They aren't McGahee. He has the speed to get outside but runs inside with good power because he has good body lean and can get those extra yards.

The Ravens created this offense for him. They wanted to do with McGahee what Cameron did with LaDainian Tomlinson in San Diego. The Ravens wanted to build their offense around a running back who had the complete package.

But that's going to be hard to achieve now. McGahee will probably still handle the bulk of the workload as long as his body holds up, but the Ravens have to be more selective in using him.

The Ravens can't reverse course now. They want to make Flacco as comfortable as possible in the offense, and they can't afford to have him throwing the ball 35 to 40 times a game.

The Ravens have to remain a run-oriented team and play smash-mouth football, and that's why McClain and Rice have to play bigger roles.

We've seen glimpses of McClain's ability. He is a power back with the rare speed of a big runner to get to the corner.

Rice has been used sparingly. He is a deceptive runner because of his smallish frame, but he does have power. He hasn't shown that acceleration to get outside like McGahee and seems uncertain about cutting when he gets in space. Maybe that will all come with time.

Against the Dolphins on Sunday, McClain had six carries for 17 yards and Rice had seven for 13. It was enough to keep Miami off balance and give McGahee a chance to rest.

It's easy to look back and see what McGahee could have done differently as far as offseason training, but the Ravens can't afford to focus on the past. They've got to deal with the future.

On Sunday, we saw an emotionally charged McGahee playing in front of a lot of hometown fans. His 5-yard touchdown run late in the game was good stuff. He was stopped at the Dolphins' 3 but bulled through tacklers to finish off the run, and Miami.

But for him to carry the running game through the remainder of the season might be too much to ask.

His effort has been outstanding, but the Ravens might have to find another way to help him, which means bringing back the three-headed monster.

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