Once considered a given to again be among the most stable and feared units in the NFL, the Ravens rushing offense has been successful only in a formation that a year ago it shied away from.
Through two games this season, running backs Justin Forsett and Lorenzo Taliaferro are averaging seven yards per carry (12 rushes, 84 yards) out of the shotgun formation — all of those carries coming in Sunday's 37-33 loss to the Oakland Raiders. But that duo, and rookie Buck Allen, averaged 2.82 yards per carry (34 rushes for 96 yards) when quarterback Joe Flacco was under center.
It's a unique problem for the Ravens, and one likely exacerbated by the game situations Sunday in Oakland — the Ravens twice trailed by two scores, and found a rhythm in the shotgun that had eluded them through the first game against the Denver Broncos.
But their 12 carries on draw plays out of the shotgun were more than Ravens running backs had during all of the 2014 season (nine), and through two games was the only way the offense substantially moved the ball on the ground. No NFL team used the shotgun formation less than the Ravens last season.
However small the sample size, it brings into question how the pair of top backs will be utilized going forward, and whether the zone scheme that Forsett found success in last year will yield similar results this year.
Early in the game, the Ravens used the traditional under-center running game more as a decoy than anything else. Big first-quarter completions to wide receiver Steve Smith Sr. for 22 yards to open the Ravens' third offensive series, then rookie tight end Maxx Williams two plays later for a eight yards and a first down, came on play-action passes.
The team's longest run of the game, however, came in the first quarter out of the shotgun, when Forsett burst through a lane created by left tackle James Hurst and left guard Kelechi Osemele for 16 yards.
That success continued on the final drive of the first half, which led to a field goal and a 20-20 score at halftime. Forsett picked up a 15-yard gain on third-and-15 deep in Ravens territory, and finished that drive with 30 rushing yards on three runs from the shotgun.
At the half, Forsett had five carries on 52 yards out of the shotgun, and he, Taliaferro, and Allen combined for 13 yards on six carries on runs from under center.
When the Ravens ran from under center, the offensive line didn't get to the second level of Oakland's defense as well as they did a year ago, when the offense averaged 4.5 yards per carry. Plays were bottled up near the line of scrimmage, and the gaping lanes Forsett followed all the way to the Pro Bowl didn't exist in either of the first two weeks when Flacco was under center.
They did appear, however, when Flacco was lined up in the shotgun. On those plays, guards Marshal Yanda and Osemele quickly got to the Raiders' linebackers to create multi-level running lanes for Forsett and Taliaferro.
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In theory, this accomplishes the same thing last year's scheme did, with the athletic guards blocking several players on different levels on the most successful run plays.
That's more difficult when teams stack the box with an extra defender, as the Raiders did at times against the run, but when the Ravens spread them out in shotgun formations, the guards had the ability to block downfield.
For most of the fourth quarter, the Ravens operated out of the shotgun as they aimed to erase another 10-point deficit. Taliaferro got the bulk of the snaps — 15 of 23 in the quarter, a stretch during where he amassed nearly five yards per carry and a touchdown on draw plays.
Forsett's efforts as a runner out of the shotgun, plus his pass blocking and receiving ability, mean the feature back job remains his going forward. But what distinguished him last season from Taliaferro, who ran often out of the shotgun as a standout at Coastal Carolina, was his ability to find seams in the Ravens' traditional running game.
A running game built on draws out of the shotgun is hardly one to build around long-term. The rest of the season might prove Sunday to be an anomaly. But if the Ravens line up in the shotgun more under offensive coordinator Marc Trestman, Taliaferro's abilities in that situation might cut into Forsett's carries.