"We’re constantly reaching to find a level of consistency that we want to have," said senior offensive assistant/tight end coach Greg Roman. "The guys have done a great job up until this point." (Baltimore Sun video)
The Ravens’ running game, revamped in the offseason after two years of dismal production, seemed doomed before the regular season was even two weeks old.
Right guard Marshal Yanda, a perennial Pro Bowl selection and perhaps the best player at his position in the NFL, went down with a season-ending ankle injury in Week 2. The Ravens were already without starting left guard Alex Lewis, who was lost for the year with a shoulder injury, and had a first-year starting center in Ryan Jensen. Their backfield was missing Kenneth Dixon, who had knee surgery on the eve of training camp, and Danny Woodhead, who pulled his hamstring in Week 1.
What remained didn’t appear to have the makings of a top-10 NFL running attack. However, during a first half of the season in which little has gone right for the offense, the improvement of the running game has at least given the Ravens a chance on most weeks.
After finishing with the league’s 28th and 26th-ranked rushing offense the previous two seasons and setting franchise lows in rushing attempts those two years, the Ravens head into their bye week ranked fourth in the league in rushing yards (1,088) and attempts (261), eighth in rushing yards per game (120.9) and 12th in yards per carry (4.2).
In just about every measure, the ground game has improved significantly and that’s despite almost weekly uncertainty at right guard after Yanda’s absence and an unsettled backfield.
“I don’t really look at any of that stuff until the season is over,” said Ravens senior offensive assistant and tight ends coach Greg Roman. “We’re definitely spending a lot of time this week studying what we do and how we do it. The constant push is to really improve it — how can we get it better? I think once the season is over, if we earn the right to be near the top, that will be a time where we can look back and say, ‘Wow, look at what we accomplished.’ But we have a lot of work yet to do.”
Roman, the former offensive coordinator of the San Francisco 49ers and Buffalo Bills, was hired this offseason and given a clear yet daunting task: Fix a run game that’s been broken since offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak left in 2014.
In his five full seasons in San Francisco and Buffalo, Roman’s offense finished in the top eight in rushing yards every year. Of course, those teams also had mobile quarterbacks in Colin Kaepernick and Tyrod Taylor. The Ravens obviously do not in Joe Flacco.
However, they’ve found success on the ground in running multiple and versatile schemes, tailoring the running game plan each week to attacking the opponent’s perceived weaknesses. With Juan Castillo in the run game coordinator role the past two seasons, the Ravens adhered to the zone blocking scheme. Now, they incorporate a bunch of schemes depending on the opponent.
“The scheme stuff, he knows inside and out,” left guard James Hurst said of Roman. “In the past here, we’ve been in outside zone at least 80 percent of the time. You know, we’d mix in some others. But we’re more of a multiple scheme, trying to attack the defense where they’re weak and create advantages for all of our blockers. [He’s] just inspiring the confidence in us to get the job done. He has faith in us on game day to keep grinding. Even if we don’t have success early, we keep plugging away, eventually knowing we’re going to hit one or two.”
Ravens running back Buck Allen called Roman “the guru of what he does.”
Alex Collins, who started the regular season on the practice squad but has since taken over as the lead back with Terrance West (Towson University, Northwestern High) sidelined with a calf injury for the past four games, is 10th in the league with 521 rushing yards despite ranking 24th with only 93 rushing attempts.
His production is a testament to his talent and hard-running style, but also to the Ravens’ offensive line and tight ends and the team-wide commitment to running the ball.
“We are trying to create angles; we are trying to create numbers advantages wherever we can. Joe has a big part of that. Joe is at the line of scrimmage making a lot of decisions in the run game,” coach John Harbaugh said Monday. “Basically the endpoint is to create more chunk runs, create more big-play runs, and that is what we have done. Sometimes, there are a few more negative-yardage runs in that, because you get some penetration sometimes and that is what we try to fight against. That probably happened a little more than we wanted to this past game.”
Harbaugh credited the partnership Roman has with offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg. They work each week to pair the running game plan with the passing one. However, Roman’s work started long before the regular season. The revamping of the run game started in the summer minicamps and continued throughout training camp, where Roman and the Ravens worked daily on changing, then refining their schemes.
The commitment has paid dividends. The Ravens have run the ball for 125 yards or more in six of their nine games. That happened just twice in 16 games last year, when the Ravens averaged just 91.4 rushing yards per game, which ranked 28th in the league. They also set a franchise-record low with 367 rushing attempts. The Ravens are on pace this season to run the ball 464 times.
“That was the philosophy. We wanted to improve and work on the run game,” said Joe D’Alessandris, the Ravens’ first-year offensive line coach. “I see nice, steady growth. We’ve had some setbacks sometimes, but then all of a sudden, you’re going to have a positive gain. We’ve hit some spurts where we’ve had some consistent runs and then we lack and then we get back at it again. I think it’s a daily work in progress for the run game. Where we are right now, let’s continue to grow.”
With the passing game still struggling, the Ravens seem to understand that opposing defenses are going to devote more players to stopping the run. That’s partly what the Tennessee Titans did Sunday, and they had success, limiting the Ravens to 73 rushing yards on 22 attempts.
That figures to be a recipe for other Ravens opponents to copy, at least until Flacco gets the downfield passing game on track. The Ravens have overcome several challenges in establishing a quality run game, but their final seven games will present many more.
“It just boils down to consistency. Some weeks, we’ve been as consistent as you may find. Others, we need to keep pushing for that and not taking any little detail for granted,” Roman said. “I think it’s going to come down to the details and the fundamentals of things. That’s always going to be the case. Running the football starts with having the right attitude and I think our guys have that attitude.”