"We ran it 28 times – that’s a lot of times to run it in this league," said coach John Harbaugh. "If you look at numbers around the league, that’s a lot." (Kevin Richardson / Baltimore Sun video)
The Ravens ran 25 running plays and 59 passing plays Sunday, and that was a problem mainly because they lost to the Cleveland Browns.
Every modern NFL offense is, by design, a pass-first offense. The last team to finish with more running plays than passing plays was the 2015 Buffalo Bills. Even with the emergence of running back Alex Collins last season, who ranked ninth in the NFL in yards per carry, the Ravens took their chances through the air over 56 percent of the time on offense.
But a result like Sunday’s 12-9 defeat invites scrutiny. At his Monday news conference, Ravens coach John Harbaugh followed his opening remarks by answering question after question about the running game. He was asked whether he thought it had been neglected, whether it needed to be more efficient, whether it was headed in the right direction.
He bristled at the notion that the Ravens, who have long struggled when quarterback Joe Flacco is asked to carry the offense, had erred in passing so much.
The presser offered some of Harbaugh’s most extensive and interesting comments yet on the state of the team’s grounded rushing attack. “Every week is a new week” in the NFL, he acknowledged, but there were more than just messages of hope to unpack. Some of it rang true. Some of it did not.
Claim: “I mean, we ran it  times — that’s a lot of times to run it in this league. If you look at numbers around the league, that’s a lot.”
In the interest of fairness, Harbaugh’s recollection Monday was that the Ravens had run the ball 28 times Sunday. In reality, it was three fewer. And, after looking at numbers around the league from Week 5, that was not a lot.
Seventeen teams, including the Ravens, had at least 25 carries over the weekend. The usual ground-and-pound suspects were among them — the Dallas Cowboys ran the ball 29 times, the Carolina Panthers 31 times — but so were the NFL’s offensive elite. The New Orleans Saints, Kansas City Chiefs and Los Angeles Rams, by far the league’s three highest-scoring teams, each ran the ball at least 30 times.
For the Ravens, 25 carries aren’t a lot, either. Last season, they had only three games with fewer than 25. This season, only in their Week 2 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals (22 carries) did they finish with fewer, a byproduct of a massive first-half hole that could not be filled with counter-runs and trap plays for Collins.
The underlying problem is not the Ravens’ total workload but its proportionality. It’s like any good diet ruined by bad food choices: Sushi, for instance, is a safe, nutritious dining option. But eat too much, and over time, you run the risk of mercury poisoning.
The Ravens offense, when it has binged on passes, has turned stomachs this season. In the loss to the Bengals, just 27.2 percent of offensive plays were running plays. Against Cleveland, the share was just 30.1 percent. How rare is that lopsidedness? Entering Week 6, only the Indianapolis Colts and Minnesota Vikings have 70-plus-percent passing-play shares this season.
Claim: “You have to do whatever you have to do to move the ball and score points. We’ve been doing a pretty good job of that up until this last game. We just need to put more points on the board. Nine points — three, three and three — is tough to win games that way. That’s the bottom line.”
The Ravens’ loss Sunday ended a streak of 13 games in which they scored 20 or more points. They still rank No. 11 in points per game, not far behind the New England Patriots and Atlanta Falcons. They have played just one game with their top overall draft pick, rookie tight end Hayden Hurst, and two in rainy weather.
Every game is different, as Harbaugh noted, and so, too, is every season. The Ravens’ ground game was so sound last year, it seems implausible that, with guard Marshal Yanda healthy once more, it would prove so difficult to rediscover that old magic.
But defenses evolve, and so do offenses. The Ravens attack so far has largely spread the ball around to a variety of receiving targets, with an occasional deep throw to John Brown. It’s possible the Ravens could return to their hard-running ways later this season. It’s also possible they’ve determined they would be more successful if they don’t.
Claim: “A fresh running back is a good thing. I think running backs [like Collins] taking 40, 50 snaps is not necessarily a good thing. You talked about the balance. [If] you put the ball in one guy’s hand for 35 plays, I don’t know if that’s balance. We need to spread the load, and you want fresh guys out there playing hard.”
Collins played just 27 snaps Sunday, tied for his fewest since Week 1, when he fumbled against the Bills in the Ravens’ blowout. He’s averaging 33.4 snaps per game this season, more than he did in his 12 starts last year (28.8).
Given the wear and tear on running backs, moderation is often the best prescription. But Collins’ pitch count has come at the expense of the team’s running back production.
On Sunday, Buck Allen finished with 50 snaps, his third game this season in which he's eclipsed or equaled Collins' snap count. The running backs are being rotated as if the coaching staff considers them equals — perhaps an overly generous conclusion, given that Allen actually has 27 more snaps this season.
But their production is imbalanced. Among runners not named Lamar Jackson, Collins is averaging a team-high 3.8 yards per carry, and Allen just 2.8. Collins is averaging 8.6 yards per catch on nine receptions; Allen, 6.2 yards on 21 catches. Collins has lost two fumbles. Allen has lost one.
Those numbers are a disappointment for Collins, who last season averaged 4.6 yards per carry, but perhaps the strangest departure from 2017 has been the team’s unwillingness to let him find a running rhythm. In every game he played last year, Collins had at least one possession in which he carried the ball on back-to-back plays. In Week 11 and Week 12 wins over the Green Bay Packers and Houston Texans, respectively, the Ravens went to him four times in a row on the ground.
This season, Collins’ usage has been more one-and-done. Only in Week 3 did Collins receive back-to-back carries. On those two drives against the Broncos, over those four total carries, he averaged 7 yards per rush.
Allen has been leaned on just as little. He had four straight grind-the-clock carries for 14 total yards at the end of the Ravens’ win over the Steelers, and another two consecutive rushes to start a fourth-quarter drive Sunday at Cleveland. The Ravens didn’t gain a yard on either, and soon they were punting again.