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Ravens' young receivers need running game to repeat 2014 success

"It is a new offense to some degree, because of the wording, said Steve Smith Sr., on the new offensive scheme. "There are very similar [terms]. It’s still football. Those same football plays we ran last year, they were running in Chicago as well."

One of the top issues concerning the Ravens in 2015 will be the state of the passing game, with several young receivers competing for playing time. But if the Ravens can't run, they can't pass.

The team has been through this before. In 2013, the Ravens averaged only 83 rushing yards per game during an 8-8 season with an offensive line that was battered by injuries and a star running back named Ray Rice who was too heavy and slow.

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But, last season, the Ravens had the No. 8-ranked rushing attack in the NFL. They averaged 126.2 yards per game and featured one of the league's most explosive backs in Justin Forsett, who finished with 1,266 rushing yards on 235 carries.

So, after wrapping up three days of a minicamp Thursday and not being able to practice again until training camp starts in about a month, what is the current status of the Ravens running game under first-year coordinator Marc Trestman?

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"I'm really excited," said Ravens left guard Kelechi Osemele. "Forsett is coming out here like he's trying to earn another contract. He's flying around and he's finishing and running downhill and looking really good. And our young guys are stepping up and learning from him, as far as what it takes to be one of the premier backs in the league.

"As you know, he led the league in explosive plays, so I think he's just really trying to build on that, and all the young guys are kind of just following suit. It's just great leadership on his part."

The Ravens have been smart in staying with last year's success. According to Forsett, the terminology for the running game hasn't changed much, which makes good sense.

Both Trestman and former coordinator Gary Kubiak run the West Coast offense, which uses a downhill, one-cut scheme. So, it's better to have one person, in this case Trestman, learn more than many others.

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Plus, the Ravens return the entire starting offensive line from a year ago, and the unit should be very productive led by two outstanding guards in Osemele and Marshal Yanda.

"It's been seamless," Osemele said of the transition from Trestman to Kubiak. "I would say that the only thing that's changed really is the terminology, maybe. There are different things for the receivers and stuff. There are a lot of different concepts, but for an offensive line that's kind of young, things are pretty much the same.

"There are a lot of calls that are different; there are a few wrinkles here and there that we're going to throw in there to kind of throw the opposition off," he continued. "But as far as everybody being on the same page right now with Trestman coming in, I feel like everybody is firing on all cylinders. We have a long way to go, but I feel like right now, we're on the right path."

Trestman will give defenses multiple looks as far as the running game. In Chicago, the Bears ran the spread offense, two tight ends, unbalanced lines, and even went with six offensive linemen for more power.

There won't be a strategy problem. The issues are with the running backs. The top three, including Forsett, need to prove themselves. Forsett had a big year last season, but played for four different teams before having success.

At age 29, you wonder if he can do it again. At only 5 feet 8 and 197 pounds, can he last an entire season without wearing down? He appeared to tire at the end of the 2014 regular season, but got a second wind in the postseason.

So far during the organized team activities and minicamp, he has performed like a rookie trying to make the team.

"He [Justin] has a real knack for the scheme," coach John Harbaugh said. "He takes every rep. He runs every rep 50 yards into the end zone. He is just a great leader, a great leader by example."

There will be an interesting battle for the No. 2 running back job between second-year player Lorenzo Taliaferro and Buck Allen, a rookie drafted in the fourth round out of Southern California.

Taliaferro rushed for 292 yards on 68 carries last season, but he was big. Possibly too big.

Apparently, he had a strong offseason in the weight room. The baby fat is gone. He is more muscled and a lot leaner. Few wanted to tackle him last season. Even less will want that job in 2015.

He isn't a breakaway runner, but he's a good change-of-pace back for Forsett. He could wear a defense down in the fourth period.

Allen fits the profile of the running game in this offense. He is steady but unspectacular, and could be a weapon in the passing game as a third down back.

Both have made favorable impressions.

"I've been impressed with Lorenzo," said Trestman. "He's fluid. He does everything right, he's in the right places, he understands our protection package. I feel really confident when he is behind Joe in the running game and in our pass protection scheme. He has had a very good camp."

Harbaugh said of Allen: "Buck Allen is going to be interesting. We'll find out when the pads come on, but I have a feeling he is going to be able to run this scheme really well. He has excellent vision. He has the lateral cut ability that's pretty special."

The Ravens running game is in the same situation as their receiving game. Young players will have to step up for the team to be successful. It's a given that quarterback Joe Flacco will have another strong season and the line might be as dominant as when the team moved here from Cleveland in the mid-1990s.

If the Ravens can establish the run, especially early in the season, that will give those young receivers time to mature. If they can run, that will take a lot of pressure off Flacco and even more off a questionable secondary.

If not, this could be a long season, a possible rerun of 2013.

twitter.com/MikePrestonSun

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