Perhaps the most disappointing thing to emerge from the Raven’s “down” year in 2013 was the horrid performance of what has always been a stout running game. Injuries and ineffectiveness, along with an offensive line that couldn’t open a hole big enough to fit a toothpick through, contributed to the drop in performance from the Ravens running backs. The numbers are terrifying – 3.1 yards per carry, 1328 total yards, 83 yards per game, and 7 total touchdowns. Yikes.
We can blame the offensive line and injuries all day long, but the truth of the matter is no one could run the ball last season. Joe Flacco and Tyrod Taylor had the best yards per carry averages, most likely because they were running for their life as every play broke down. Flacco was constantly getting flushed out of the pocket behind the human turnstiles in front of him.
The good news is, things are looking up. Through two preseason games, the Ravens are averaging a stout 4.9 yards per carry as a team. And it doesn’t matter who is running the ball. Here are the individual stats for each running back so far.
Lorenzo Taliaferro – 29 carries for 112 yards, 3.9 average, 0 touchdowns
Bernard Pierce – 17 carries for 92 yards, 5.4 average, 1 touchdown
Ray Rice – 5 carries for 38 yards, 7.6 average, 0 touchdowns
Justin Forsett – 9 carries for 39 yards, 4.3 average, 0 touchdowns
So what has caused this sudden renaissance in the running game? The offensive line is certainly playing better. Marshal Yanda is healthy, Kelechi Osemele is playing some of the best ball of his career, Rick Wagner has been steady on the right side, and Jah Reid is settling in as a rotational player in “jumbo” packages. The team has a couple of good blockers in Steve Smith and Kyle Juszczyk as well.
Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce look to be fully healthy (with the exception of Rice’s minor shoulder injury vs. the Cowboys). Pierce is a great fit for Gary Kubiak’s zone read offense as a one cut runner who knows how to find the hole and explode through it. Justin Forsett has advanced knowledge of the system after playing for Kubiak in Houston. Taliaferro runs with power and is pretty advanced for a rookie running back at this stage.
But perhaps the biggest reason the run game is excelling is the offensive scheme in general. It is designed to manufacture performance one the ground by setting it up through the air. Through the history of this scheme, many no name and undrafted running backs have flourished. Arian Foster, Alfred Morris, and Shannon Sharpe come to mind.
Lesser quarterbacks than Joe Flacco have succeeded in Kubiak’s offense as well, including Matt Schaub, who went to two Pro Bowls under his tutelage. Kubiak emphasizes high percentage throws to move the offense and set up the run game. This alone opens up holes for the run game. Gary Kubiak’s system is just simply a better fit for the personnel that the Ravens have, as opposed to the power-based scheme they ran under Jim Caldwell.
Rice’s speed is an asset in the zone read, and he has excelled at running outside zone plays in the past. Even though we have a small sample size in the first two preseason games, Rice is all but guaranteed to produce some efficient rushing stats this season. Pierce, as we have already mentioned, has excellent vision and is decisive in his running. Pierce could very well be the workhorse up the middle that wears down defenses, at which point Rice can come in an burn them for huge gains.
The offensive line stands to perform better because they are not a massive line by NFL standards, but they are athletic. And in the zone read, that is perfectly acceptable. Linemen have to be agile and lighter so they can get out to the flat and block on the run for screen plays.
The Ravens are going to live and die by the run in 2014, and that’s a good thing. Teams will be forced to respect it, and will be have to load the box to prevent big plays. And when that happens, play action will kill them (theoretically). Time of possession will teeter in the Raven’s favor. And it’s going to be a heck of a lot of fun to watch.