The Ravens’ Down-to-Earth Approach Is Unnerving the N.F.L.
OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The Baltimore Ravens are the 7-6 team that absolutely no one in the N.F.L. wants to play in the postseason next month. In a copycat league, the defiant Ravens have become the feared, eccentric nonconformists — radical thinkers who make the rest of the league nervous and jumpy.
With good reason.
In the modern N.F.L., just about every team has made the passing game the principal focus of its offensive attack. Indeed, the deities of the league this season are quarterbacks, who routinely throw as many as 35 or 40 times a game. The high priest of the movement is Kansas City’s Pat Mahomes, who threw 53 passes last weekend against the Ravens.
But about a month ago, Baltimore handed its starting quarterback job to Lamar Jackson, a rookie whose strength is running the football. Jackson had 26 carries and 119 rushing yards in his first game. Since then, the Ravens have become a 1970s throwback, running the football 60 percent of the time, or more, with Jackson leading the way.
This iconoclastic strategy — it helps to also have the N.F.L.’s top-ranked defense — quickly produced a three-game Ravens win streak, which rescued the team’s season. And then, last weekend, in a featured, must-see game at Kansas City, the Ravens ran the football nearly 73 percent of the time in the first half, a stunning run/pass ratio for even a grind-it-out high school football team.
The Ravens ended up outplaying Mahomes’s ascendant Chiefs for a good part of the game and had the lead late into the fourth quarter. Yes, Baltimore eventually lost by 3 points in overtime, but the result sent a thunderbolt through the rest of the league’s Super Bowl contenders, whose defensive coordinators simultaneously had the same thought:
Wait, we might have to play these guys? And how far back do we have to go to find a defensive game plan for stopping a run-first team with a run-first quarterback?
Or, as Tampa Bay Coach Dirk Koetter, whose team is the next Ravens opponent, said in the past week: “You can’t just reach down in your desk drawer and pull out the same defensive game plan from last week. This is a totally different deal. Totally.”
Such angst is music to the ears of Baltimore Coach John Harbaugh, whose job seemed in jeopardy until Jackson became a starter in the wake of a hip injury to the longtime Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco in early November. Harbaugh relishes opponents feeling uncomfortable as they prepare for his team.
“When a team sees our style for the first time and doesn’t have a chance to work on it all throughout the year, of course it’s going to be challenging for them,” Harbaugh said, with a smile.
Here’s how committed Harbaugh is to the recent changes he has made. Flacco, an 11-year Baltimore veteran and a Super Bowl most valuable player, is healthy again this week. Harbaugh was not moved; on Wednesday he announced that he was sticking with Jackson.
The overarching question is whether the Ravens’ new offensive approach can be sustained. In the past, other N.F.L. teams have prospered, at least for periods of time, with running quarterbacks at the helm. But the prospect of serious injury to the most pivotal offensive player always loomed.
There is a reason the average career of a top N.F.L. running back is years shorter than that of the average quarterback. Those who make it their primary job to run the football take a merciless pounding.
Michael Vick, a four-time Pro Bowler from 2002 to 2010, holds the N.F.L. record for most rushing yards by a quarterback. Asked Tuesday if Jackson can run the football as frequently as he has so far and still avoid injury, Vick said:
“I don’t think you can keep that pace up for the long term. This is a desperate situation; the Ravens needed to stack up some wins to save the season. Lamar and the Ravens are doing whatever they can to get to the playoffs.”
But Vick, now a Fox analyst, would not tell Jackson to change his approach.
“His style is why they drafted him, and you can get hurt standing in the pocket, too,” Vick said. “And let’s remember that almost every quarterback in the league is running and trying to be mobile.”
Still, Vick insisted that at some point you have to limit the exposure to big hits.
“You just don’t want to accumulate too much punishment; it adds up,” he said. “When you tuck the ball and run upfield, the chance for injury probably goes up 25 percent. You don’t want to risk that too often.”
On Wednesday, Harbaugh admitted that running the football 60 percent of the time was a bit much.
“That’s a high number,” he said, but he added with a little grin: “Hey, it could get higher, though, you never know — the way we’re playing and the way games go.”
Harbaugh continued: “In Baltimore, running the football has always been a big part of the Ravens and a big part of our personality, too.”
Emphasizing the ground game has other advantages. It’s easy to mount longer drives, which keeps the defense on the sideline and rested.
“Anyone who doesn’t understand that a ball-control offense helps the defense, doesn’t really know football,” Baltimore safety Eric Weddle said. “When a defense is on the field for 20 percent less time than it normally is, it’s obvious the defense is going to play better.”
And the Ravens’ commitment to the run is not solely based on Jackson’s forays on run-pass option plays or designed runs. Baltimore is giving the football to its running backs more often, too. While Jackson’s 71 rushing yards led Baltimore against Kansas City, his teammates Gus Edwards and Kenneth Dixon ran for 67 yards and 59 yards.
In fact, the Ravens’ dominant ground game has seemed to lift the morale of the entire Baltimore roster. Guard Alex Lewis insisted the offensive linemen are delighted to spend more of their time aggressively charging forward in run-blocking schemes instead of protectively pass-blocking.
“It’s human nature to want to go forward instead of going backward,” Lewis said. “And a good running game means you’re winning the battle up front in the trenches. It also wears out the opposition.
“Late in games, you can see it in their eyes. They’re gassed.”
Vick, in fact, wondered if the Ravens aren’t trendsetters.
“Maybe this could be something that transforms the game, where more teams go to a run-oriented style,” Vick said. “I think that would be really cool, man.”
They are the unconventional, even radical 7-6 Baltimore Ravens. The end of their run might not be predictable or successful, but no one wants to play them in January.
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