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Preston: Injury to Woodhead, inadequate planning leave Ravens searching for a third-down weapon

The Ravens squeezed as much as they could out of the running back position last week in the season opener against the Cincinnati Bengals, and they're going to need a similar effort against the Cleveland Browns on Sunday.

And they're going to have to do it for the rest of the season.

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The Ravens have two solid running backs in starter Terrance West and backup Buck Allen, but neither is Le'Veon Bell or Ezekiel Elliott. Still, they combined for 151 yards on 40 carries in the Ravens' 20-0 win against Cincinnati on Sunday.

The Ravens also had 32-year-old Danny Woodhead in the running back mix as the third-down specialist, but an injured hamstring suffered in the first half landed him on injured reserve Thursday, so the soonest he could return would be Week 11. The Ravens replaced him with Jeremy Langford on the 53-man roster.

It might not be a problem now, but it could become one in the future. Until the Ravens find someone, they have to squeeze everyone in the backfield a little bit harder for more production.

A limited position became even more restricted because the Ravens no longer have one of their top pass-receiving weapons in the backfield.

On the surface it might not appear that Woodhead's absence could have a major impact, but everyone knows that Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco is the checkdown king. During the Ravens' first series against the Bengals he completed passes of 12, 13 and 8 yards to Woodhead, who added a 4-yard run before he was injured.

Now, who is going to be Flacco's security blanket?

Two of the former titleholders are gone. Fullback Kyle Juszczyk is with the San Francisco 49ers and former tight end Dennis Pitta is in semiretirement.

Actually, the Ravens put themselves in this situation. They knew Woodhead's history before signing him during the offseason. He had missed 27 games because of injuries during the previous three years and missed most of last season with a torn ACL in Week 2.

What they needed was a security blanket for the new security blanket. They had one in Taquan Mizzell, a rookie running back out of Virginia, but they cut him at the end of the preseason.

Big mistake. Mizzell, now with the Chicago Bears, was the only change-of-pace runner on the roster. Not only was he confident running inside and fast enough to get to the perimeter, but he also had good hands.

But instead of keeping Mizzell, the Ravens chose to keep eight defensive linemen and seven key performers for special teams. Mizzell would have been a better option.

Allen has decent hands and could become the third-down back, but he and West struggle in pass protection. The Ravens could insert wide receiver Michael Campanaro into the backfield, which would present matchup problems, but he, too, would be a liability in pass protection.

Both tight ends, Nick Boyle and Benjamin Watson, could double at fullback/H-back, but the speed wouldn't be there. Coach John Harbaugh is keeping all options open.

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"We just have to see how it goes," Harbaugh said.

Woodhead didn't play much in the preseason, but it was easy to see how the Ravens planned to use the trio of running backs. It's a well-schemed running game built around taking advantage of angle blocking for offensive linemen.

West is a free agent after this season, so he is playing for a new contract. He has made adjustments in his running style from trying to jump outside too quickly to staying inside and becoming more of a north-south runner. He runs with power and last week in the fourth quarter got 2 or 3 more yards per carry simply on good body lean.

Allen is on a redemption mission. He disappeared from the playing field a year ago as the No. 3 runner behind West and Kenneth Dixon. As a rookie in 2015 he rushed for 514 yards on 137 carries, but last season had only nine carries for 34 yards.

The missing piece, though, is a replacement for Woodhead.

mike.preston@baltsun.com

twitter.com/MikePrestonSun

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