Ravens going with running back by committee in quest to improve ground game

When asked early in training camp for his thoughts on a running back by committee approach, Justin Forsett joked that he didn't know what that even meant. Six weeks later and two days after he re-signed with the team following his surprising release, the veteran Ravens running back was essentially asked the same question, and again feigned ignorance.

"What's that again?" Forsett said Wednesday, flashing a sly grin. "I think we went over that before."


The running back by committee approach, in which coaches divide touches between multiple ball carriers, is loathed by most NFL running backs, who want to stay on the field, get the majority of the carries and stay in rhythm with the offense. It's also a nightmare for fantasy football owners who don't know which back to include in their lineup on Sundays.

However, it's becoming more and more popular in the NFL as organizations seek to keep their top running backs healthy and fresh, and provide different looks to opposing defenses.

"There are not too many guys in the league that will be the classic 300-plus carry guys. That's just not the kind of league we are right now," said former Ravens coach Brian Billick, now an analyst for NFL Network. "Most teams are going to do it in combination. Yeah, you'd like to have a guy good enough to come in there, get hot and be that dominant guy. I don't know that a lot of teams have that dominant guy."

When they open the regular season Sunday against the Buffalo Bills at M&T Bank Stadium, the Ravens are expected to get all three of their healthy running backs — Forsett, Terrance West (Northwestern High, Towson University) and Buck Allen — involved in the game plan. Rookie fourth-round draft pick Kenneth Dixon would have likely had a significant role, too, but he's sidelined with a knee injury.

"I think the bottom line is we have some idea in how we want to work them in and rotate them, and then we will adapt to the game conditions and see where it goes," offensive coordinator Marc Trestman said Thursday. "I expect to see all the guys playing and in there at some point in time."

After a 2015 season in which they set a franchise low with 383 rushing attempts and finished 26th in the NFL by averaging 92.4 rushing yards per game, the Ravens made fixing their running game an offensive priority. Coach John Harbaugh has said since early in the offseason that the team will stay with the hot hand at running back and that could change on a game-by-game basis.

Forsett, the only back on the Ravens roster that has a 1,000-yard season to his name, said he'll start Sunday. West, the team's most explosive ball carrier this preseason, will likely be the second back into the game. Allen, a good receiver out of the backfield, could have a role on third downs. Fullback Kyle Juszczyk also might be used on third downs because of his pass-protection ability.

Harbaugh acknowledged the fine line between getting everybody involved and preventing backs from getting into the flow of the game.

"If things don't go well, if we play too many guys, it is because we didn't let a guy get into a rhythm. If we play one guy, it will be because we didn't give a guy a chance," Harbaugh said. "You understand how that works, and in the end, wisdom is in the results. We will all be judged how well we run the ball as a group. My goal is for all those guys to have success running the ball. I think they all bring something different to the table, style-wise, ability-wise. Those are all things that we can utilize, and it should to be our benefit to have multiple good players back there carrying the football."

The Ravens have traditionally leaned heavily on one ball carrier, but that's primarily because they had a Pro Bowl-caliber back. Jamal Lewis, the team's all-time leading rusher, had at least 300 carries in four of the five seasons with the Ravens in which he played more than 12 games. After becoming the full-time starter in 2009, Ray Rice averaged 277 carries over the next four seasons.

Lewis spoke many times during the course of his career about how he needed to get into the flow of the game, and be given the opportunity to wear down defenses. During his best seasons with the Ravens, he turned modest gains early in games into long runs in the fourth quarter after the defense was tired.

However, things have changed significantly since he retired following the 2009 season, and those changes go beyond offenses becoming much more pass-oriented.

In 2010, seven different backs had 300-plus carries, and 11 total backs had at least 260 rushing attempts. Last season, the Minnesota Vikings' Adrian Peterson was the only back to have more than 300 carries and only five total backs had at least 260 carries.

Teams relying on two backs is hardly a new phenomenon. But these days, partly because of attrition, more teams are getting three backs involved. Last year, 13 teams had three backs with at least 45 carries. In 2010, only six teams could say that.


As the head coach of the New York Jets from 2001 to 2005 and the Kansas City Chiefs from 2006 to 2008, Herm Edwards didn't worry about divvying up carries. He had Curtis Martin with the Jets and Larry Johnson with the Chiefs. Johnson had 416 carries during the 2006 season.

"I once asked Curtis how he feels after 20 carries. And he said, 'Coach, I don't get warmed up until I have about 25,'" said Edwards, now an analyst for ESPN. "When you platoon them, it's OK. But the only way you can do it and make it really work, you've got to get first downs. If you don't get enough plays, it becomes bad. It works if you get a flow going. If you don't, you're going to be stuck with one or two guys at most."

Edwards said that the running back by committee approach not only can challenge backs to find a rhythm, it also puts pressure on a quarterback who needs to adjust to who is in the game, where the back wants the handoff and how quickly each back gets to the ball.

As a Cleveland Browns rookie in 2014, West shared carries for the first half of the season with veteran Ben Tate and Isaiah Crowell. He acknowledged Thursday that it is tough for a back to play one series and then have to go to the sideline while another running back enters the game.

"I'm not going to sit here and lie to you. It's tough getting in a rhythm," he said. "A running back has to feel the game out. But right now, I'm just taking advantage of the opportunity. When my number is called, I'm going to make the best out of the one play, or three plays, or how many plays I have."

West said he believes the Ravens will prove to have one of the top running back groups in the NFL. Forsett also credited the members of the running back group for pushing each other for the betterment of the team.

"Whoever is in the game, we're rooting for each other," Forsett said. "We want them to do well. I'm pushing for those guys, and they're pushing for me. It's all hands on deck. Whenever your number is called, go out and perform, and that's what we're going to do."



Recommended on Baltimore Sun