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Ravens film study: Gus Edwards' unlikely advances, stopping Joe Burrow and more

For a reminder of just how much the coronavirus pandemic has warped the NFL’s team-building process, just look at the league’s abandoned preseason schedule.

The Ravens were set to play four not-entirely-meaningless games before they kicked off their season opener last month against the Cleveland Browns. Instead, with an abbreviated training camp and only intrasquad scrimmages possible, the Ravens' fourth full game was Sunday’s 31-17 road win over the Washington Football Team.

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The reworked schedule might have kept dozens of players safe — from both COVID-19 and soft-tissue injuries — but it also left coaches across the league without a clearer picture of their roster’s strengths and weaknesses. Practice repetitions show only so much.

As the Ravens (3-1) approach Sunday’s Week 5 game against the visiting Cincinnati Bengals (1-2-1), the team is still figuring out what it does best. Here’s a look at how the Ravens could improve their running game, where they’re especially strong in pass defense and more.

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Edwards' upgrades

By almost any metric, the Ravens' rushing attack this season is worse off than it was during a record-breaking 2019.

Yards per carry are down slightly (5.5 to 5.4). Yards per game are down considerably (206.0 to 160.8). Leading rushers Lamar Jackson and Mark Ingram II are running less efficiently. The Ravens' ranking in ESPN’s run-block win rate has fallen from first to eighth.

And then there’s Gus Edwards, who, improbably, unexpectedly, is somehow even better than before.

After a quietly historic second season, Edwards entered this year with tempered expectations. He was seemingly the Ravens' third-string running back, stuck behind Ingram and second-round pick J.K. Dobbins. With Jackson an every-down running threat, Edwards projected as the backfield’s No. 4 option.

Through four games, with the Ravens' ball-control dominance diminished, playing time and touches have been hard to come by. Edwards has played 70 offensive snaps, fewer than Dobbins (88) and Ingram (80). He’s received 27 carries, fewer than Jackson (39) and Ingram (34).

And yet his running production suggests, again, that he is one of the NFL’s top runners. Edwards ranks third in the league and second among qualifying running backs with 6.2 yards per carry, almost a yard better than his 2019 mark (5.3). Dobbins is averaging 6.1 yards per carry on 15 attempts, much of which came on a 44-yard run against the Houston Texans. Jackson is averaging 6 yards per carry, and Ingram 4.4.

Maybe most impressively, few backs have faced more congested defensive fronts than Edwards has. According to the NFL’s Next Gen Stats, Edwards has run against eight or more defenders in the box on 40.7% of his carries, the league’s second-highest rate.

Edwards' limitations haven’t changed much: He’s solid as a pass blocker, but at 6 feet 1 and a listed 238 pounds, he’s not an ideal target out of the backfield. Edwards has just nine catches (on nine targets) in his career and hasn’t been targeted once this year. Dobbins, meanwhile, has six catches on seven targets for 52 yards entering Week 5. On third-and-long, the rookie seems to be the Ravens' preferred option.

But as a rusher, Edwards is as reliable as they come. Of his 27 carries this season, 11 have been converted into first downs, a 40.7% success rate; few running backs with over 100 rushing yards this season are even above 30%. On third and fourth downs this season, Edwards has moved the chains on five of his six carries.

If Edwards' production continues and Dobbins remains the position’s best weapon as a receiver, Ravens coaches will face a tough decision with one of their team’s most respected veterans. According to Next Gen Stats, Ingram’s rushing yards over expected per attempt — a metric that uses player-tracking data to determine how productive a ball-carrier is relative to expectations — has fallen from one of the league’s better marks to one of the league’s worst.

With Cincinnati’s solid pass defense, the Ravens' ground game could be especially important this weekend. If Edwards is going to take snaps away from anyone, it might have to be the starter. On Sunday, Ingram played just 14 snaps, the fewest among the Ravens’ running back trio.

Stopping Burrow

Joe Burrow entered the NFL after one of the greatest deep-ball seasons in college football history. In winning the Heisman Trophy last year at LSU, Burrow completed 44 of 78 deep passes — defined as a throw of 20 or more “air yards” past the line of scrimmage — for 1,689 yards, 22 touchdowns and two interceptions, according to USA Today.

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On Sunday, Burrow became the first rookie quarterback to throw for 300 yards in three consecutive NFL games. But it hasn’t been because of deep shots. According to Pro Football Focus, Burrow has thrown just one catchable pass out of 17 such attempts.

Instead, the No. 1 overall pick has done his damage with intermediate throws. In the Bengals' Week 4 win over the Jacksonville Jaguars, on passes of 11 to 20 air yards, Burrow went 11-for-13 for 206 yards, according to PFF. He’s been one of the NFL’s most efficient quarterbacks on such throws.

Now he’ll have to face a Ravens pass defense that’s made that range a danger zone. According to Next Gen Stats charting, the Cleveland Browns' Baker Mayfield, Houston Texans' Deshaun Watson and Washington’s Dwayne Haskins Jr. went a combined 11-for-27 on intermediate throws, with two interceptions. (Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes, on the other hand, was 6-for-6 on such passes in Week 3.)

Burrow has the accuracy to drop throws in between linebackers and safeties and the receiving corps to test defensive backs in man-to-man coverage. He also has the quickness to buy time and space when pressured.

With the Ravens' strong secondary, their defense’s most important matchup will come up front. In Week 2, the Philadelphia Eagles sacked Burrow eight times on 52 drop-backs — and they needed a blitz for just two of those takedowns.

Cincinnati’s offensive line is one of the NFL’s most inconsistent, with 15 sacks allowed overall this season. That’s usually a green light for Ravens defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale and his aggressive blitz schemes.

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Extra points

>> Outside linebacker Matthew Judon had easily the Ravens' most productive pass-rushing game of the young season, with two sacks, one hurry, and three quarterback knockdowns. But the two sacks were largely due to unforced errors. On the first, he came off the edge unblocked after Washington slid its pass protection away from him. On the second, a poorly timed chip block sent him hurtling past right tackle Morgan Moses and into Haskins' airspace.

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>> Jackson had seven incompletions Sunday, all in the first half, and he was guilty of forcing it or badly missing on at least three of them. On a first-quarter downfield shot to Marquise “Hollywood” Brown, he had Boykin open near the sideline for an easy first down. On the next play, he overshot Boykin, who had a step on the cornerback down the sideline. Later, he overthrew wide receiver Devin Duvernay while scrambling when Boykin was available for a check-down. On a few other misfires — a dropped ball on a swing pass to Dobbins, the interception while targeting Boykin — he shared some of the blame with the receiver.

>> The Ravens' four longest run plays Sunday came while running off the right end or behind right tackle D.J. Fluker, who was making his first start there since 2014. (One of the plays, a misdirection, called on Fluker to pull left while Dobbins took a carry the other way.) And while Fluker was called for a fourth-quarter holding penalty, CBS analyst James Lofton pointed out during the telecast that he likely hadn’t expected Dobbins to bounce the play outside, leaving him somewhat exposed.

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