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Ravens film study: Gus Edwards, a backup, is maybe the NFL’s most efficient running back

On Sunday, Ravens running back Gus Edwards slipped up. He lost yardage, which he does about as rarely as the Ravens lose, because, well, he slipped.

Late in the second quarter Sunday, with the Ravens moving closer to a go-ahead field goal against the Pittsburgh Steelers, Edwards took a zone-read handoff from quarterback Robert Griffin III. As an entire half of the field opened up off left tackle, Edwards planted his right foot, started to accelerate laterally, then had his left foot give out on the waterlogged M&T Bank Stadium field. The result was a rarity: a carry for minus-1 yard.

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As the Ravens move ahead in their Super Bowl chase, bolstered by the NFL’s most efficient offense and a scary-aggressive defense, they are fortunate to have a starter-level backup running back who almost never goes backward. The former undrafted free agent is as productive as he is soft-spoken.

Of Edwards’ 133 carries for 711 yards this season, just five have resulted in negative plays — none worse than a yard — and 11 for no gain at all. Dallas Cowboys star Ezekiel Elliott’s rate of yard-producing carries (88.7%) leads the NFL, but Edwards (88%) isn’t far behind.

“Gus, to me, is a starting running back in this league,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said Sunday. “He continues to prove it. He proved it last year in the last six games, and to see him in there carrying the load like that is not surprising. Nobody thought for one second that it would look any different.”

Even with the play of Pro Bowl running back Mark Ingram II, who missed Sunday’s 28-10 win with a calf injury but expects to return for the Ravens’ divisional-round playoff game, Edwards has been the team’s short-yardage bell cow. Among the NFL’s top rushers, he leads all running backs in first-down rate (34.6%); the Arizona Cardinals’ Kenyan Drake is the only peer above even 30%.

But Edwards is more than a 6-foot-1, 238-pound sledgehammer. Battering rams don’t average 5.3 yards per carry, more than Ingram (5.0), nor do they post five 20-plus-yard runs, as many as the Los Angeles Rams’ Todd Gurley and more than Dallas’ Elliott (four). Having quarterback Lamar Jackson as a running mate helps, but that should not diminish his accomplishments.

After running 21 times for 130 yards Sunday against an elite run defense — a game high in yardage for any skill position player, quarterbacks included — Edwards quietly joined esteemed company. Before this season, the only running backs to average at least 5.2 yards per carry over their first two years (with a minimum of 120 carries) were Gale Sayers and Clinton Portis, a Pro Football Hall of Fame selection and a onetime rising star, respectively.

Edwards does not have their bona fides. But he does have a perfect fit in coordinator Greg Roman’s run offense, which keeps edge rushers frozen in place and second- and third-level defenders guessing. When there are holes to hit, Ingram and Edwards and, lately, Justice Hill have to get through them, and fast.

Edwards consistently does that. One running back metric the NFL’s Next Gen Stats measures is “efficiency,” which it calculates by comparing the total number of yards (both vertical and horizontal) a ball carrier travels with the actual yards gained. Over the past two seasons, Edwards has been the league’s most north-south runner: 2.78 yards traveled per yard gained in 2018, according to Next Gen Stats, and 2.93 yards in 2019. No one else come close; Ingram, at 3.34 yards, ranks second this year.

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On Sunday, Griffin rightly called Edwards “a big back,” but his feet are light and his balance is impressive. In one second-quarter play, Edwards took a zone-read handoff out of the pistol formation. But Griffin’s footwork was imprecise; as he faked a keeper and started to loop around Edwards, his left knee clipped Edwards’ lower left leg.

The contact sent Griffin tumbling. Edwards steadied himself, managed to hop around falling guard Bradley Bozeman and just kept on running, moving the pile for a 4-yard gain. Several other times Sunday, Edwards ripped through would-be arm tackles so easily, it was as if he’d never felt them.

In the fourth quarter, Edwards showed his vision on another modest gain. As rookie wide receiver Marquise “Hollywood” Brown motioned from right to left, Pittsburgh put eight players in the box against the Ravens’ nine — five offensive linemen, a tight end, a wide receiver, Griffin and Ingram.

With Jackson out, the Ravens’ numerical advantage was somewhat diminished. Edwards still found a way. When he took the handoff and headed right, Steelers safety Terrell Edmunds crashed down to set the edge; bouncing outside was a no-go for Edwards. Inside linebacker Devin Bush shuffled over to the next gap; nothing doing there, either.

Edwards didn’t force it. He waited behind his blocks, made one jump cut inside, then another, before finding a lane, absorbing a hit and finishing with a 6-yard gain for a first down.

Ravens running back Gus Edwards is a strong north-south runner, but he shows good patience when necessary, too. In the fourth quarter Sunday, he took a zone-read handoff and headed outside. But with Pittsburgh Steelers safety Terrell Edmunds setting the edge and inside linebacker Devin Bush covering the next gap, Edwards made two jump cuts to find an open running lane. He lowered his pads for a strong finish on a 6-yard gain.
Ravens running back Gus Edwards is a strong north-south runner, but he shows good patience when necessary, too. In the fourth quarter Sunday, he took a zone-read handoff and headed outside. But with Pittsburgh Steelers safety Terrell Edmunds setting the edge and inside linebacker Devin Bush covering the next gap, Edwards made two jump cuts to find an open running lane. He lowered his pads for a strong finish on a 6-yard gain.(NFL Game Pass)

“I think I left a couple plays out on the field, and I wish I could get them back,” said Edwards, who fumbled after a third-quarter punch-out by Steelers outside linebacker T.J. Watt. “But overall, I feel like we did a great job up front. Guys came with the right mindset to the game.”

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Edwards, 24, is not yet a finished product. He has just nine career catches on 10 total targets, and his pass blocking, while solid, still has lapses that Ingram typically avoids. Jackson suffered a quadriceps injury in Week 14 after Edwards missed a cut block against Buffalo Bills defensive end Jerry Hughes, who hit Jackson as he threw a 61-yard touchdown pass to tight end Hayden Hurst.

But after a mostly unremarkable first 10 week this season, Edwards has looked more like the threat he was toward the end of last season, if not often an improved version altogether. Jackson’s presence has a gravitational pull on defenses, but it’s telling that Edwards has succeeded even when the NFL’s (likely) Most Valuable Player is on the bench.

His two longest runs this season have started next to Griffin. In Week 11, Edwards ripped off a 63-yard touchdown against the Houston Texans in the fourth quarter, when Jackson had already been called off. And on Sunday, he nearly scored from 42 yards out, cut down from behind after an impressive 38-yard dash up the middle.

“Phenomenal running back,” Griffin said of Edwards. “I think he’s a starting back. I think we all thought that last year also. But to have him and Mark and Justice is truly a treat.”

AFC divisional round

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Titans/Texans/Bills@Ravens

Jan. 11, 8:15 p.m.

TV: Chs. 13, 9

Radio: 97.9 FM, 1090 AM

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