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Preston: Receivers are key to the Ravens' running game, too

Asked whether he was surprised that the Ravens had won six of their past seven games with a rookie quarterback and a running game that is considered obsolete, receiver Willie Snead IV just stared straight ahead.

After a few seconds, he shook his head in disbelief and then started to smile.

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Thank goodness no one suggested this would have happened during the beginning of the season.

“I would have been like ‘Damn, we can do it but it’s not something I would want to do,’ ” Snead said. “But it is what it is. We’re just out doing our job. Our running game gives us our best chance of winning.”

The Ravens have the No. 2 running game in the NFL, averaging 152.6 yards a game. They have pounded the opposition into virtual submission for almost two months, led by two big downhill runners in Gus Edwards and Kenneth Dixon, and Mr. Option quarterback himself, rookie Lamar Jackson.

Those three, as well as offensive coaches Marty Mornhinweg and Greg Roman, will get the bulk of the credit for the new and improved running game.

But for every run that nets more than 10 yards, some receiver such as John Brown, Michael Crabtree or Snead is out there tying up a linebacker, safety or cornerback.

“I think they want to win. They want to win, they want to do whatever they can to help us win,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. “But that’s not always the case. I mean, everybody wants to win, but most people want to win on their own terms, and these guys have put away their own terms a little bit, a lot probably. They’re blocking. We’re motioning across and cutting off back-side defensive ends with our wide receivers. Those guys are doing that. That’s a tough duty, but they have embraced it.”

Run blocking for a receiver isn’t a lost art, but there are few who are good at it. There are even fewer who want to do it.

The Ravens’ trio of Brown, Crabtree and Snead aren’t enamored by it either but understand the situation here in Baltimore. They either run the ball or lose. It’s reality.

Fortunately, there aren’t any prima donnas who will publicly complain, even though Crabtree’s body language indicates he struggles the most with so much run blocking.

But he does do a pretty good job, too.

“I have not blocked this much before,” said Snead, “certainly not in New Orleans. The Ravens have taken this to a new level having put in a running quarterback.”

Snead has the toughest job of the three receivers. He is in the slot and only weighs 205 pounds. He has to occasionally block down on defensive ends or go straight up against outside linebackers and safeties.

The Ravens have helped him with working on certain angles to attack, including sending him in motion to gain an advantage in positioning, but those crashing outside linebackers can hurt you.

“You have to know the play, the schemes, who to block and where the backs are going,” Snead said. “It’s about angles and leverage and knowing where the backs are supposed to be going. You also have to know the people you are playing against and any weaknesses.”

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At 6 feet 1 and 215 pounds, Crabtree can tie up a defensive back as well as Snead, and he is often on the end of a lot of long runs by Edwards. Brown hasn’t been so blessed with size, weighing only 178 pounds.

Fortunately, he lines up mostly on the outside and doesn’t get caught up with the big boys near the line of scrimmage.

“Crab and Snead do more of the physical stuff,” Brown said. ‘It’s not that hard, you just got to get into them, square your feet and keep them moving. I don’t look for the ball carrier. The defensive back will tell you where the runner is going. Our guys have great vision. Sometimes our running backs make you better than you really look.”

That appears to be a major key. Edwards has rushed for 718 yards on 137 carries and Dixon has 333 on 60. Jackson has gained most of his yards on outside runs but ran more inside the tackles last week against the Cleveland Browns behind pulling offensive linemen.

“Those running backs can come from anywhere,” Snead said. “They say just cover them and we’ll do the rest.”

Regardless if it is a receiver, an offensive lineman or a tight end, run blocking is all about desire and attitude. The NFL has gone passing mad during the past decade and receivers want to be part of the trend. They like the statistics and the receptions. They like the touchdowns, celebrations and fame that come with it.

But with Jackson, they have a quarterback who has given the offense a new dimension, one that the league wasn’t prepared for because teams are in pass-defense mode. Because of Jackson’s inaccuracy as a passer, the Ravens have had to roll up their sleeves and get back to the dirty work.

That includes receivers.

“We can get down the field and open,” Snead said of the Ravens receivers. “If we need to be able to do that we can. We have to stand ready and be there if called upon.

“But we also know that our running game gives us our best chance at success. You can’t argue with that. After the bye week, we wanted to become the best run-blocking receivers in the game.”

And right now, who is going to argue against them?

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