Youth movement begins for Ravens’ rushing game

In a two-month span in 2015, Ravens running back Terrance West was jettisoned by two of the league's most downtrodden franchises. Kenneth Dixon has yet to play in an NFL regular-season game. Buck Allen was a healthy game-day inactive for the first three weeks this season.

With veteran Justin Forsett's release Tuesday, the young and unheralded trio of backs not only represents the team's running game of the present as the Ravens (3-1) face the Washington Redskins (2-2) on Sunday afternoon at M&T Bank Stadium, but potentially the future as well.


West, Dixon and Allen, all 25 or younger, have 427 carries and 13 career starts between them. Yet, the Ravens' hope of finding and maintaining a productive running game this season rests on their shoulders.

"I'm hoping to get all of those guys as many carries as possible," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "How it shakes out, who gets what carries and all of that is kind of unpredictable. We'll have a plan, certainly, in terms of the plays we want to run and how we want to run them. Hopefully, all of those guys — not hopefully — we expect all of those guys to do well."

After rushing for a career-high 113 yards in the Ravens' loss to the Oakland Raiders last week, West is expected to get his second consecutive start. Assuming he's active for a second straight week, Allen, a 2015 fourth-round draft pick, will likely reprise his role as a third-down back. Dixon, a fourth-round selection this year, missed the first four games with a torn MCL in his left knee. He's viewed as the team's future starter, but the process of getting him acclimated to the speed of the NFL game and knocking off rust will start Sunday.

"Justin is a really good guy. I hate to see him go. But in this league, it's all about production and all about what you can do," Dixon said. "We're just trying to get the best three running backs we can get out there. Unfortunately, Justin has left us. But he's a really good leader and I was thankful for that.

"It could be a new beginning, but like I said, we're all going to try and go out and emulate the same thing — run hard and run tough."

As valued as Forsett was for his leadership and presence in the locker room and community, the current arrangement is what Ravens fans have been clamoring for the past several weeks. Forsett, 30, was averaging just 3.2 yards per carry in starting the first three games and showed little ability to break tackles and pull away from defenders.

His departure leaves a running back group that might still lack a game-breaking workhorse, although team officials believe that Dixon, a touchdown machine at Louisiana Tech, can ultimately become that guy. However, the Ravens' current backfield, which includes pass-catching fullback Kyle Juszczyk, has a more versatile and explosive look.

"It's a tough business," said Juszczyk, one of Forsett's closest friends on the team. "We're all going to get moved on from eventually and there's always going to be a younger, more energetic guy that's ready to take your spot. I think we have a really explosive, exciting young group here. I think they're going to show people what they can do over these next 12 games. I feel like these guys, they may not have a ton of experience under their belts, but they'll surprise you with how smart they are on the field and how composed they can be."


Going young at running back is certainly not a novel concept in the NFL. Six of the league's top 10 rushers are age 25 or younger. Second-year Arizona Cardinals back David Johnson, 24, leads the league with 457 rushing yards. Dallas Cowboys rookie Ezekiel Elliott, 21, is second with 412. But it has been a while since the Ravens embraced so much youth at the position, notwithstanding last year, when they were forced to rely on an Allen and West pairing once Forsett went down with a season-ending arm injury in November.

For years, Jamal Lewis was the Ravens' lead back. Then came Willis McGahee, who was succeeded by Ray Rice. Forsett was a 29-year-old journeyman in 2014 when he became the de-facto starter following Rice's release. The Ravens' pattern, in recent years, has been to pair a relatively experienced back with a younger No. 2. However, that formula has changed.

"I don't know if I look at it that way. We all love and respect Justin, and the organization made a decision, and John has expressed it as the best decision for the organization," offensive coordinator Marc Trestman said. "We are excited to get Kenneth up and see what he can do. We are excited to see Terrance continue to grow and be a productive player in our offense. We have confidence in Buck and his ability to go out there. We have seen him do it; he did it last year. We think we have three very good running backs that we can rotate around and move around."

West is the biggest beneficiary, at least in the short term. After a record-setting career at nearby Towson University, West was drafted by the Cleveland Browns in the third round in 2014. However, the Browns had concerns about his maturity and conditioning, and traded him to the Tennessee Titans the following year for a conditional draft pick. His stay with the Titans was short and after his release, he signed onto the Ravens practice squad, fulfilling a lifelong dream to be with his hometown organization.

West, 25, has impressed team officials with his commitment level to getting in good shape and he has looked decisive and explosive from the first day of training camp. While being respectful to Forsett, West acknowledged it was difficult to get in a rhythm while splitting carries through the first three weeks. With Forsett inactive, West was the featured back last week, and averaged 5.4 yards per carry and scored a touchdown.

"The league is different from college. Each and every day in practice, somebody can lose their job," West said. "Nobody's job is guaranteed. That's how I look at it. No matter if [Harbaugh] says I'm the starter or whatever, I still have the mentality where I have a chip on my shoulder no matter what."


Dixon was the team's leading rusher in the preseason. Dixon had 4,483 rushing yards and 87 total touchdowns in his college career.

"We see that he can get you more on our run. He has moved the pile. He has shown that he can extend plays. He has shown that he has the ability to catch the football. So do the other guys, as well," Trestman said. "He is in that caliber. That is why he is up. He is healthy now, and he is going to get a chance to play and to see if he can springboard a very good preseason into a good start this week."

The timing is certainly good for the debut of the Ravens' new-looking running game. The Redskins allow 133 rushing yards per game. Only two teams allow more. They've also given up eight rushing touchdowns. Redskins coach Jay Gruden said this week that he doesn't expect too many changes with how the Ravens attack teams on the ground.

The Ravens are just hoping for far better and more consistent results.


"I think we have something special here," Allen said. "All three of us bring something different to the game. I'm excited."


Ravens running backs by the numbers

The release of Justin Forsett signifies that the Ravens are going with youth and inexperience at the running back position.

Player; College; Experience; HT.; Wt; Career games; Starts; Rushing attempts-Yds-Rush TDs

Buck Allen; USC; 2nd year; 6-0; 222; 17; 6; 140-527-1

Kenneth Dixon; La. Tech; Rookie; 5-10; 212; 0; 0; 0-0-0

Terrance West; Towson; 3rd year; 5-10; 225; 26; 7; 287-1,136-5