Heading into the 2021 season, the Baltimore Ravens were poised to have an excellent season led by the rushing attack. Lamar Jackson is coming off back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons. J.K. Dobbins ran wild late in 2020 and was a threat for 1,000 yards. Gus Edwards, the stable No.2, could even flirt with 1,000 yards in a 17-game season. A certain writer even predicted all three would get to 1,000 (that’s me!).
In the last two weeks, both Dobbins and Edwards tore their ACLs. Even Justice Hill, the best receiver and special teamer in the running back room suffered a season-ending injury (an Achilles). Entering the 2021 season now, the Ravens have a backfield of undrafted free agent Ty’Son Williams, 29-year-old Le’Veon Bell, 29-year-old Devonta Freeman, special teamer Trenton Cannon, and 31-year-old Latavius Murray.
It’s (Ty’Son) Chicken Time
While the Ravens did add three former Pro Bowlers in Bell, Freeman, and Murray, Williams should be the top dog in the Ravens running back room. The undrafted pedigree does him no favors, but there is something to be said about the elusiveness and the “boom” factor with Williams. Bell, Freeman, and Murray might be more talented runners of the football, but they have years of NFL tread on the tires.
On the other hand, Williams is fresh. He has zero career NFL carries, and he only had 233 in four years of college at North Carolina, South Carolina, and BYU. For context, Baltimore’s third-round pick Brandon Stephens had 65 rushes in two years before transferring and switching over to the defensive backfield.
As a whole, Baltimore should prioritize explosiveness over “pure running ability” that they might get with the variety of past-their-prime backs. Baltimore has a good enough run-blocking unit that Williams will likely not have to break many tackles in the backfield, and his explosiveness in the hole is much more advantageous. Bell, Freeman, and Murray are better pass-blocking options and would likely be better receiving threats, but Williams should be the choice as RB1*.
This leads to the natural chain. Williams is worse than Dobbins and Edwards. Theoretically, this should hurt the Ravens’ rushing attack. However, note the asterisk.
*Lamar Jackson is the RB1
Jackson is the engine of the scheme. With Jackson, the Ravens’ floor is an elite rushing offense. In Jackson’s starts in 2018, the Ravens averaged 5.1 yards per carry. Over a full season, that would’ve tied with the Panthers for first in the NFL. Jackson made 15 starts in 2019, and the Ravens posted 5.57 yards per carry. It led the NFL, but it is the most efficient 15-game stretch to begin a season since the merger. In Jackson’s strings of starts in 2020, the Ravens averaged 4.91 yards per carry (sixth in 2020 through first 10 games) and 6.69 yards per carry (most ever in the last five games of a season). All told, Jackson’s presence turns the team into an elite rushing threat.
Yes, Mark Ingram played on the 2019 and 2020 teams. Dobbins was a member of the 2020 team. They are two talented backs. However, look back at 2018 for the root of the rushing attack. In Jackson’s starts, undrafted rookie free agent Gus Edwards romped for 5.4 yards per carry. Kenneth Dixon, a man who has not played an NFL down since 2018, was rolling for 6.2 yards per carry. Baltimore had the NFL’s best rushing attack with a rookie Jackson, a rookie undrafted free agent, and someone who hasn’t played a snap since.
Jackson is unequivocally a better runner now. He cut his fumble rate down dramatically and has run for 6.6 yards per carry over the last two seasons. He is the ultimate equalizer in terms of numbers in the run game as he forces the defense to account for 11 players rather than 10 in usual run games. Even when Jackson does not carry the ball, he must be accounted for. This makes life easier for the cast of running backs around Jackson.
Losing key running backs hurts, but Jackson is healthy. The scheme is healthy. Running back is also one of the easiest positions in the NFL to replace. Expect Baltimore to be among the NFL’s elite rushing attacks again.
Barring an unforeseen jump from Williams as a pass blocker and receiver, this will open up RB2 and RB3 roles for Bell, Freeman, and Murray. They will have some touches in the run game, but their main roles will be on third downs or obvious passing downs.
In the Jackson/Roman offense, any of the backs should see success, but they would likely run into the same issues that plagued Ingram in 2020. Ingram did not have the explosiveness to turn okay runs into big runs. Dobbins and Edwards have a so-called extra gear that made them more valuable in the scheme.
The primary reason why any elite rushing offense can work is through the big play. Even the teams without elite running quarterbacks to lead the attack need the big play. Tennessee and Cleveland are tremendous rushing threats in large part due to Derrick Henry and Nick Chubb‘s ability to turn any run into touchdowns.
Like passing offenses, explosiveness is needed. It is incredibly difficult to grind through first downs no matter how efficient the offense is. Jackson and Williams should rattle off enough 10-20 yard runs to limit the total number of disasters that could arise (including penalties and negative plays).
Negative plays do happen. Even when you remove kneel-downs from the equation, Baltimore has zero-yard or negative-yard runs on 13.7% of carries. However, Williams should help Baltimore maintain its rate of explosive runs. In 2020, Baltimore ranked fifth with a 14.76% rate of picking up 10 or more yards. The Ravens were one of two teams (Minnesota) to have more 10-yard runs than negative and no-yard runs.
Williams as the RB1 for the Ravens is the best-case scenario for the team. He has the speed (4.48 40-yard dash) and size (220 pounds) to be a productive back between the 20s. Bell, Freeman, and Murray can be utilized for other purposes including pass protection, receiving, and short-yard packages. Williams won’t be as shifty as Dobbins or even Edwards, but he should pick up the yards that are blocked or schemed for. He provides a solid floor when Jackson is factored into the rushing equation.
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