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Ravens film study: For a high-flying offense, two running backs can be double the fun

Ravens offensive coordinator Greg Roman entered this season with the best kind of problem to solve: four running backs deserving of playing time, and no easy way to showcase more than one at a time.

There was Mark Ingram II, a Pro Bowl selection; Gus Edwards, one of the NFL’s most efficient runners; Justice Hill, a promising second-year back; and J.K. Dobbins, a second-round pick after a record-breaking Ohio State career. There was also no precedent for deploying them in the same backfield. During the Ravens’ record-breaking 2019, Roman had never put two running backs on the field together. Because with quarterback Lamar Jackson’s speed, why bother?

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Over the past month, the Ravens’ evolving offense has produced the NFL’s best rushing attack — and perhaps an answer to that question. Their “Pony” packages (two running backs) have been used more often in the past two games than they were in the season’s first two months, sometimes to great success, other times to confusing results. With the playoffs finally within reach, the Ravens could be unlocking another weapon at just the right time.

“It just was part of the evolution, a little bit, of what we’ve been talking about doing; what you do and what builds off the next thing, in terms of building things and kind of growing throughout the season,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said of the team’s exotic look Monday. “It’s put people in conflict. It’s put defensive position players and coordinators in conflict, and that’s what we always try to do.”

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Two-running-back groupings have been in the team’s offense “for a long time,” Harbaugh explained, but the Ravens featured them only sparingly early in the season. Over September and October, a Pony package appeared in just one game, their Week 2 win over the Houston Texans.

Not much happened when it did. But not for a lack of trying. A 1-yard keeper by Jackson showed how the Ravens could threaten defenses horizontally. An incomplete play-action pass got Dobbins wide open, but Jackson never saw him. And when the Ravens split Dobbins and Ingram out wide on third-and-long, isolating wide receiver Marquise “Hollywood” Brown against a safety in zone coverage, Jackson just missed a touchdown throw.

Pony groupings went to the stables for a while after that. When they returned in Week 9, Edwards lined up at fullback for a goal-line touchdown against Pittsburgh. The next month was a mixed bag for the package: four runs and one completion for just 21 combined yards.

The most effective play in that span hinted at how the Ravens’ Pony personnel would evolve. In Week 11, one of the Ravens’ longest runs from a disappointing day against a mediocre Tennessee Titans defense had Dobbins motion over from the slot to Jackson, take a shotgun handoff in stride and try to turn the corner upfield. Rather than having a tight end or fullback open a gap, Roman was asking Dobbins to make one himself. With Edwards out in front as a blocker, he picked up 10 yards.

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Over the past two weeks, Roman has embraced the potential and flexibility of two-back sets, using them four times against the Jacksonville Jaguars and four times against the New York Giants. In Week 15, Jackson’s 34-yard completion over the middle to a streaking Edwards after a fake jet sweep handoff to Dobbins was in some ways the Jaguars’ preferred outcome; Brown was wide open down the right sideline, and tight end Mark Andrews wasn’t too closely guarded, either.

In Sunday’s win, the Ravens got two easy first downs out of their Pony package and were unlucky not to get a third, while their other play also could’ve turned into a score:

  • On the opening drive, Jackson motioned Dobbins from right to left for a fake jet sweep handoff while Hill headed for the right flat. Jackson rolled out in Hill’s direction, finding wide receiver Miles Boykin for an easy 13-yard gain over a vacated middle.
  • On the Ravens’ second drive, Jackson again motioned Dobbins from right to left. This time, Dobbins took the handoff, and as two linemen pulled in the opposite direction, he followed Edwards into the second level and nearly scored up the left sideline on a 17-yard carry.
  • One play later, in a goal-line formation, Jackson faked a handoff to Edwards, lined up at fullback, before throwing a swing pass to Dobbins, who couldn’t bring it in.
  • On their third drive, Jackson motioned Dobbins from left to right, faked a handoff and wound up to target Andrews over the middle. But when Jackson tried to reset his motion, perhaps fearful of a dropping linebacker, the ball slipped out for an incomplete pass.

All four plays shared the same conceptual DNA. Dobbins, maybe the quickest player on the field, would stress the defense laterally. Another back, or even Jackson, would probe it vertically or in the opposite direction. And the play would happen fast enough that the opponent had better be prepared.

“You try to build your offense around what guys can do and what they’re capable of doing,” Harbaugh said. “We have to keep chasing that. You can’t stay the same in this league. As soon as you start staying the same, people start stopping you. So we always have to keep building on it and kind of moving the shells around as best as we can.”

With every play the Ravens put on film, opposing defenses will be better prepared. Then again, so will their own offense. Against Jacksonville, the Ravens’ first three Pony plays went for 2, minus-3 and 0 yards, respectively. The first two were busted plays — Jackson went nowhere after deciding not to target Dobbins on a bubble screen and a swing pass — but they looked easily fixable. The third play, another pass, was batted down at the line of scrimmage.

After 16 long weeks of trial and error, the Ravens’ priority Sunday will be beating the Cincinnati Bengals and ensuring a third straight postseason appearance. But another week of football also gives the offense, almost as importantly, another week to evolve. Roman’s unit has been of the NFL’s best since Week 13, with every game plan attacking the defense in new, efficient ways. And it’s always harder to hit a moving target.

Regular-season finale

RAVENS@BENGALS

Sunday, 1 p.m.

TV: Ch. 13

Radio: 97.9 FM, 1090 AM

Line: Ravens by 12

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