Making sense of Ravens' running game in 2015

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Plenty of factors interfered with the Ravens’ ability to run the football in 2015.
The departure of offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak, injuries along the offensive line and to 2014 Pro Bowl running back Justin Forsett, more eight-man boxes due to limited weapons in the passing game, and a questionable commitment from new coordinator Marc Trestman all contributed to the Baltimore rushing game dropping from eighth in 2014 all the way to 26th this past season. The Ravens averaged 4.5 yards per attempt in Kubiak’s lone season in Baltimore and averaged just 3.9 yards per carry in 2015 (24th in the NFL).
“To the extent that we didn’t run the ball well, yes, we lost our identity a little bit and we have to be able to do that,” head coach John Harbaugh said. “We’re going to find our way back that way, and we’re going to work on that right now.”
Media and fans frequently speak about the commitment — or lack thereof — to the running game, citing overused stats about a team’s record when they rush a certain number of times in a game. For this reason, some have pointed to the Ravens’ 383 rushing attempts — fewest in franchise history and tied for 25th in the NFL — as the biggest culprit in the struggles.
That simply isn’t the case.
Research has shown over and over that running the ball more often doesn’t cause a team to win more games just like simply trying to bench-press the most weight doesn’t magically make you stronger. Being strong to begin with (having leads) puts you in position to lift that heavier weight (carrying the ball more frequently). Otherwise, a team would mindlessly run the ball for the first 20 or 25 plays of a game to hit those statistical landmarks and have a big lead in the first half, right?
There are always exceptions, but teams that run the most generally do so because they have the lead with Carolina being a perfect example with a league-high 526 rushing attempts despite a 4.3 average that ranked only 10th in the NFL. It’s no coincidence that the 15-1 Panthers led for a league-best average of 39:47 per game and trailed an average of just 8:57 — also best in the NFL — according to Football Outsiders. They also averaged fewer runs in the first quarter than in any of the final three quarters, reflecting again that it’s more about running when you have the lead than “establishing the run” early.
In contrast, the 5-11 Ravens led an average of just 14:37 per game (27th in the NFL) and trailed for 32:13 per contest (26th in the league), easily their worst marks since Football Outsiders began keeping track in 1997. Of the 66 periods (counting two overtimes) in which they played during the 2015 season, the Ravens led at the conclusion of just 19 of them.
Of the five teams that led less frequently than the Ravens in 2015 — Miami, Chicago, Jacksonville, San Francisco, and Cleveland — only the Bears finished outside the bottom 10 in rushing attempts. All five of those teams also averaged better than Baltimore’s 3.9 yards per carry clip.
Whether they take it too far or not, teams pass more frequently when they’re behind as even the worst passing teams in the NFL average more yards per throwing attempt than the most efficient rushing teams average yards per carry. It’s common sense that you can catch up more quickly by going through the air, even if that leaves you prone to more turnovers.
The 2010 Ravens averaged 3.8 yards per carry — a mark slightly worse than this year’s team — but carried the ball 104 more times in a 12-4 season. Yes, you can argue that Cam Cameron had a stronger affinity for the running game than Trestman, but Baltimore also enjoyed the lead an average of 38:26 per contest, the best in the NFL that season.
It’s easy to run the ball when you’re protecting a lead.
To be clear, this doesn’t mean that the running game wasn’t problematic or one of many reasons leading to the first losing season of the Harbaugh era. The issues with the running game just didn’t have as much to do with the number of attempts as it did the lack of efficiency and how regularly the Ravens trailed in games.
In looking at the breakdown of rushes by quarter, however, there’s little excusing Trestman for the Ravens only having 91 rushing attempts in the first quarter compared to the league average of 106.3. Strangely, the Ravens collected more rushing attempts (105) in the fourth quarter than in any other period — a trend usually indicative of a winning team — but that number was skewed by a combined 25 fourth-quarter carries against Pittsburgh and Cleveland in Weeks 4 and 5, their best rushing performances of the season by a significant margin.
At times, there was certainly a questionable commitment to the running game — a knock on Trestman before he was hired by Harbaugh last January — but the Ravens’ frequent deficits magnified the problem.
“Part of that is scheme, part of that is how many times we call it and when we call it,” said Harbaugh about the problems with the running game. “There’s play-action that goes with it [and] passes behind runs that keep the linebackers off your run game — all of those things that we need to build into our run game to be as good as we can be.”
The healthy returns of Forsett and starting center Jeremy Zuttah, finding stability at left tackle, and the continued development of Buck Allen, Lorenzo Taliaferro, and Terrance West should help to improve the running game. Gaining more leads by playing better on both sides of the ball will create more opportunities that weren’t there for a ground game that struggled to find its groove throughout the season.
But it will ultimately be about running the ball better — not just more often — in 2016.