The Ravens opened Sunday's game against the Pittsburgh Steelers with third-string running back Alex Collins, a move that almost paid dividends. Usual starting running back Terrance West and backup Buck Allen were on the sidelines.
Collins produced team highs in both rushing attempts (nine) and rushing yards (82) and was the brightest offensive spark on the field. But he also had a costly fumble that the Steelers turned into a touchdown en route to a 26-9 win over the Ravens.
"It just definitely means that I need to keep going and keep doing what I do," Collins said. "Consistency is key with this team, and I'm trying to be as consistent as possible."
Collins' first carry of the game loomed as a good omen when he took off for a 23-yard run on the opening play of the first quarter. He added a 50-yard run off right tackle that led to quarterback Joe Flacco finding wide receiver Mike Wallace for a 16-yard pass for the team's only touchdown 6:02 left in the third quarter.
"I knew the game plan, I knew the scheme," said Collins, who gained nine yards on his other seven rushes. "When that was the play that they called, that's all I was thinking about. The guard [Matt Skura] pulled around, and I just got behind him and just read his block."
The 50-yard run did not sit well with Steelers defensive end Cameron Heyward, who criticized his unit's lackadaisical attitude when leading 19-0.
"We can't keep shooting ourselves in the foot," he said. "We had them at 19-0, and to give up that type of run is unacceptable. We have to keep challenging ourselves. We'll stress this stuff in practice."
Collins was signed to the Ravens practice squad on Sept. 5 after the former 2016 fifth-round pick of the Seahawks was waived by the team. With the Ravens, he was behind West, Allen and Jeremy Langford on the depth chart. It was Langford, not Collins, who was promoted to the active roster after a left hamstring injury forced Danny Woodhead to injured reserve on Sept. 14.
But the day before the home opener against the Cleveland Browns on Sept. 17, Langford was released, and Collins was promoted to the active roster. Since then, Collins' workload has increased.
Collins admitted that he was "most definitely" surprised to get the start.
"But I was prepared and I was ready," he said. "This is what I've been preparing for all week and like I told you before, I never know when my number's going to be called, but I always like to be ready when that happens."
West, the Northwestern High and Towson University product who had started in each of the team's first three games, did not express anger at getting leapfrogged by Collins.
"He's getting it going," said West, who finished with four rushes for -7 yards. "He's explosive. He had some long runs. So whatever the decision is, it is what it is."
Asked about his season-low four carries, West replied, "Whatever the play call is, I've just got to accept it and go on. I'm just trying to win."
Whether Collins will start next Sunday against the Oakland Raiders, however, is uncertain after he lost a fumble for the second time this season. On his fifth rush of the day, he was stripped by Heyward, who also recovered the fumble at the Ravens' 28-yard line with 5:48 left in the second quarter.
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Collins, who also lost a fumble in the team's 24-10 victory over the Cleveland Browns on Sept. 17, did not get another attempt in the quarter, but returned in the next quarter as a slot receiver.
Coach John Harbaugh made it clear that he expects Collins to work on his ball security.
"He's not going to keep putting the ball on the ground though," Harbaugh warned. "He won't get any more opportunities [if he continues] – the leash isn't going to be long on that. When you come in here and drop the ball however many times he has dropped [it], I'm not going to tolerate it. I like him. He's a good kid, and he makes plays, but he has to hold onto the football."
For his part, Collins acknowledged the mistake.
"I've been thinking about it, but not trying to let it affect my play out there," he said. "I'm just moving forward from it, but it's definitely something that I don't want to let happen again because I feel like I let my teammates down. I put this one on me and definitely will make up for it."