The hunger gnaws at Alex Collins, a desperation to see the blocks line up perfectly in front of him, break a tackle and then burst into the clear for 30 or 40 yards.
“Every time I touch the ball,” the Ravens running back said Friday as he reflected on a start to the season in which he’s managed just two carries of 10 yards or more. “It gets frustrating, but I try not to let that get to me, because me personally, every time I grab the ball, it’s on my mind, ‘Who do I need to make miss or run through to take it all the way?’ ”
The 2-1 Ravens traveled to Pittsburgh this weekend riding an unfamiliar wave of optimism about their passing game. Quarterback Joe Flacco has played two of his best games in recent memory in the team’s victories, and he’s throwing to so many productive targets that it’s hard to pick a favorite. An offense that stumbled out of the gate last season ranks fifth in the league in scoring.
But the Ravens have done it in spite of their running game, which has ranked as one of the least efficient in the NFL.
This raises two philosophical questions: Are the Ravens still a run-first team? And should they be?
It’s increasingly common to find smart football people who regard the run game as a mere accessory to the hyper-efficient passing offenses that have swept the NFL.
An evolution that began in the 1970s with Bill Walsh’s West Coast offense has led to a league in which six starters are currently completing more than 70 percent of their passes and in which Flacco’s 63.6 completion percentage — which would have led the league 20 years ago — is below average.
With that kind of certitude by air, who needs to hand the ball to a running back 30 times a game?
“I don’t know about that,” NBC analyst Cris Collinsworth said when asked if it’s still essential for an NFL offense to establish the run. “Pro Football Focus is my analytics company, and all the data — I almost hate to say this out loud because it so offends football people — [suggests] that every time you run the ball, you hurt your chances of winning the football game. It’s taken a lot of convincing. We’ve got pure math people who just run the numbers, and they work for every NFL team in the league now.”
Yet the Ravens have generally swum against this aerial tide, with coach John Harbaugh saying the ground game remains essential to his vision.
The most dynamic offenses in team history — most recently the 2014 attack called by then-coordinator Gary Kubiak — have featured banner seasons by running backs.
The Ravens rarely threw effectively in the first half of last season, and only Collins’ surprise breakout kept their offense above water.
The opposite has been true this season. Flacco came out gunning in an opening blowout of the Buffalo Bills, throwing 34 times in slightly more than a half of action. He attempted 55 passes in a Week 2 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals, partly because the Ravens fell behind early. And he threw 40 more times in the team’s 27-14 win over the Denver Broncos last Sunday.
Collins, meanwhile, has carried just 34 times in three games, averaging 3.4 yards per attempt, down from 4.6 last season. Overall, the Ravens rank second-worst in the league at 3.1 yards per attempt, and they have not broken a run longer than 16 yards.
All of their offensive linemen grade worse as run blockers than as pass blockers, according to Pro Football Focus. The scouting service rates right tackle James Hurst and left guard Alex Lewis as particularly ineffective.
If these trends continue, should the Ravens simply abandon their traditional emphasis on the run?
Coaches and players say no.
“With a good run game, it’s hard to stop an offense,” Collins said. “I feel like when you’ve got all sides of an offense working, there is no answer. I’d rather it be that way than only the pass game’s working and eventually, they may find an answer for that.”
The Ravens did make a more concerted effort to balance their offense against the Broncos, handing off to Collins seven times in the first quarter. He didn’t break loose on any of those attempts, but several players said the effort was important nonetheless. For example, Flacco used a play-action fake to set up a 30-yard catch-and-run by tight end Mark Andrews in the first quarter. That play, which helped set up a touchdown, followed a first-down handoff to Collins.
“Our average wasn’t very good, but we stuck with it,” Hurst said. “It’s physicality, it’s a mindset out there. We know we have to be better. We relish that opportunity to run the ball and impose your will on the defense. We know we have to do a better job of that, but it helps our offense, obviously.”
Flacco also said running attempts create a cumulative effect against the defense.
“It’s nice to be in games where we can grind it out and [are] afforded the luxury of wearing on people a little bit,” he said. “Where maybe a little early in the games, it doesn’t quite matter as much — the yards per carry. But a lot of times in these types of games, if you’re able to keep at it, your yards per carry just multiplies at the end of the game when you’ve been beating them up throughout the course of 45 minutes.”
Flacco seemed less certain the Ravens’ inefficient running against the Broncos set up their more effective passing attack.
“It’s really tough to know that,” he said. “I just know it’s a big part of what we do as an offense. It’s even a bigger part of what we do when we can get it going successfully.”
Here’s a not-so-secret truth about NFL offensive linemen: Pass blocking might be more essential to their earnings in the modern game, but run blocking speaks to their hearts.
On some level, they’re rough-and-tumble kids who love plowing into the rough-and-tumble kids on the other side. So you’ll rarely find a lineman who wants his team to run less.
“Oh yeah, run blocking is definitely more fun,” Ravens left tackle Ronnie Stanley said. “I think it’s important to have a solid run game in any successful offense. It’s vital.”
“It’s everybody’s favorite part of the game,” Lewis added. “That’s when you’re always having the most fun.”
In watching film from the first three games, the Ravens linemen have not detected an all-systems breakdown.
“We’ve had one guy here, one guy there messing up their assignments or not having the right technique, and it’s hard to get the run game going when you’re doing that,” Lewis said. “Because then you’re playing 10 against 11.”
In examining his individual performance, Lewis has noticed he needs to finish blocks more consistently instead of firing out hard and then letting up before the whistle.
Six-time Pro Bowl guard Marshal Yanda agreed with his teammates’ diagnoses, and he’s been here before. Every season, it seems the Ravens hit a patch when they face serious questions about their commitment and execution in the running game.
“We’re going to get it going,” he said. “Nobody’s panicking. It’s just a little bit of assignment here, a little bit of technique there. Everybody’s committed to it. We’ll get it.”
In his 12th NFL season, Yanda remains convinced effective running is essential to a functioning NFL offense.
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“One-hundred percent,” he said. “We have to do both. We can’t just pass the ball the whole game or run the ball the whole game. We have to have a balance of both. It’s early yet, but sooner or later we have to find that balance.”
Harbaugh noted his team’s opponents, particularly Denver, have emphasized stopping the run. With so many defenders stalking the line of scrimmage, he said, the Ravens can’t afford any blocking lapses if they hope to break a game-changing run.
“We need a 40-yard run. We need a 50-, 60-yard run, and all of the sudden, that [yards per carry] you’re talking about goes up,” he said. “We haven’t earned that yet. We have to earn that.”
He and offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg have been careful to note the team’s effectiveness in short-yardage situations, especially near the goal line. Collins and Buck Allen have excelled at fighting for short touchdowns and have played key roles in the team’s league-best efficiency in the red zone.
Collinsworth said the key to making such runners vital to a modern NFL offense is using them as receivers, and the Ravens have done that, completing 20 passes to Collins and Allen in the first three games.
For all his company’s statistics hailing the payoffs of a pass-happy offense, Collinsworth is still a former player who was raised in a different era of the sport.
“In part of my soul, I can’t get that out of my mind, that you have to maintain the balance if nothing else to protect the pass protectors,” he said. “If you let these guys in the NFL just rush the passer on every play and play dime defense, that’s pretty darn tough to do. You’ve got to get them situationally playing the run so that you can throw the football.”