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A forgotten man last season, Ravens' Buck Allen steps to forefront of improved running game

Ravens running back Buck Allen (#37) runs for 37 yards before being tackled by the Browns' Briean Boddy-Calhoun (#20) at Cleveland's two-yard line in the second quarter of the Ravens' 24-10 win over the Browns in September. The Ravens scored a touchdown on the next play.
Ravens running back Buck Allen (#37) runs for 37 yards before being tackled by the Browns' Briean Boddy-Calhoun (#20) at Cleveland's two-yard line in the second quarter of the Ravens' 24-10 win over the Browns in September. The Ravens scored a touchdown on the next play. (Kenneth K. Lam / Baltimore Sun)

It was extremely hard to accept, but Ravens running back Buck Allen had been through the experience before. He knew how to handle the disappointment, how to push aside any potential feelings that he wasn't wanted or valued, and how to stay ready if his opportunity did come.

As a redshirt freshman at the University of Southern California, Allen found himself buried on coach Lane Kiffin's depth chart. Not until Kiffin was fired during the following season did Allen get a legitimate chance, and he finished the 2013 college campaign with 15 touchdowns.

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In 2015, Allen had 867 all-purpose yards and three touchdowns as a Ravens' rookie. Yet last season, a mostly healthy Allen was inactive for the first three and the final five games. In between, his role was essentially confined to special teams while the Ravens gave Justin Forsett, Terrance West and Kenneth Dixon opportunities to jumpstart a sluggish running game.

"I never got down on myself, because at the end of the day, I know what work I put in to get where I'm at. It's just about me getting an opportunity to show it," Allen said Thursday. "I think if you've never been in a situation like I have, that can be really tough on you because you start thinking, 'Am I good enough? Can I do this? Do they still see me like this?' It's the same thing I went through in college with Lane Kiffin."

How the Baltimore Sun staff predicts Sunday's game between the Bears and Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore.

As the Ravens (3-2) face the Chicago Bears (1-4) Sunday afternoon at M&T Bank Stadium, Allen, 26, is no longer an afterthought in the team's surprisingly sound ground attack. A calf injury has sidelined West, the team's starting back in four of the first five weeks, so regardless of whether he or Alex Collins starts Sunday, Allen will have a significant role on offense.

He leads the team with 66 rushing attempts and he's second to Collins with 232 rushing yards. Allen also leads the Ravens with 20 receptions and has two touchdowns. With Collins working on fixing ball security issues, Allen could be coach John Harbaugh's go-to option in the red zone and in the fourth quarter.

"Buck is a guy that you trust with virtually everything," Ravens offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg said. "He is a very, very consistent high-level type of player. I am happy with what he has done, and he certainly has some strengths that we try to utilize."

Allen played in all 16 games as a rookie in 2015, rushing 137 times for 514 yards and a touchdown and catching 45 balls for 353 yards and two scores. He started six games after Forsett was lost for the season in November with a broken arm. Aside from losing two fumbles, Allen showed himself relatively well.

However, the Ravens picked up West, a former Towson University standout, in November of that year. They then used a fourth-round pick on Kenneth Dixon, who had a prolific college career. Forsett was cut at the end of the preseason and then re-signed in time to start the regular season opener.

Under coach John Harbaugh, the Ravens are 11-0 all-time against rookie quarterbacks at M&T Bank Stadium.

Suddenly, Allen, who didn't distinguish himself in the preseason and seemed to lack the elusiveness and decisiveness that he showed at times as a rookie, became the forgotten man. His first carry came in Week Four last year. His final rushing attempt of 2017 came in Week 10. Allen finished the season with just nine carries for 34 yards and three catches for 15 yards.

He didn't complain publicly about his reduced role in a season where the Ravens finished with one of the least productive rushing offenses in the NFL. But it certainly gnawed at Allen and drove him through his early offseason workouts in Florida.

There were other motivating factors as well. Allen had his first child, a boy named True, last year. He provided a sense of purpose.

"Us as players, we just get caught up in this bubble. But me, I still see myself as normal. I go out. And for a kid just to run up to me and say, 'You're Buck,' and to see the joy in their face," Allen said. "I don't know my pops, but I thought about it and it's going to be pretty amazing for True to say, 'My Dad played in the NFL.' For him to grow up and see what his Dad did, that really motivated me."

Allen was also hit by tragedy. In June, his cousin and confidante, Christopher "Slank" Ammons, died unexpectedly at age 28. Allen said Ammons passed away in his sleep. The Ravens running back wears a necklace with a picture of Ammons that says "RIP Slank," and he dedicated the 2017 season to his late cousin.

"He was always there when I was training. He didn't do anything. He just watched," Allen said. "It just really hit me deep."

Mike Preston breaks down the three key matchups as the Ravens host the Bears on Sunday.

When Allen returned to Baltimore to start the offseason program, he had to focus on making the team. The outside perception was that the 2015 fourth-round pick was on the bubble and needed a strong summer to secure a roster spot.

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West, Dixon and Lorenzo Taliaferro were all returning, and there was talk that the Ravens were in the market for another running back.

"I feel like I had to just come in and work," Allen said. "Nothing is given to you. I couldn't come in and say, 'This is going to be my role.'"

Dixon's season-ending knee surgery on the eve of training camp cleared Allen's path to a 53-man roster spot. Allen also eliminated any doubt with a solid training camp. Still, how much Allen would be used on game days was unclear.

In a season-opening victory over the Cincinnati Bengals, he led the team with 21 carries for 71 yards. A week later in a win over the Cleveland Browns, Allen had 19 total touches for 101 yards and a touchdown. He had 11 total receptions in Weeks Three and Four and when West went down early in last Sunday's 30-17 victory over the Oakland Raiders, Allen had 21 carries for 73 yards and a touchdown and four catches for 12 yards.

Suddenly, a player who spent just as many game days in a sweat suit on the sideline than in uniform has become a trusted option for a team that averages 130.4 rushing yards per game, the sixth most in football.

"He has been very determined. He has worked very hard. He probably is not happy with the fact that he has not broken out earlier, but it takes a lot of hard work," Harbaugh said. "For him to understand the type of back he is, his own skill set and what he does best, I think he is coming into his own that way. He is a versatile guy. He is very smart. He can do a lot of things in all three phases of the offense. I am pretty excited about him, and then, there are things he can get better at. He will tell you that. Just in terms of the way he carries the ball and maybe getting some more yards after contact, those are some things he is working on."

Ryan Jensen and James Hurst are familiar faces in different spots for improving Ravens offensive line.

Quarterback Joe Flacco praised the improvements Allen has made in pass protection, which has allowed the Ravens to use him on third downs. After a difficult last season, Allen certainly appreciates the praise. He, however, insists Ravens' fans have seen nowhere near his best.

The expectation is West will miss a couple of games so the opportunity that Allen has sought could be at hand.

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"The past is in the past, neither here nor there. I can't say, 'Dang, I should've gotten an opportunity last year.' I'm just thankful for the opportunity I got now," Allen said. "If you have the opportunity, what are you going to do with it? I have the opportunity to seize the moment and just play football. I've been doing it my whole life. Just relax and play football."

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