Resistance appears futile. Every week, the Ravens running game rips chunks out of defenses.
The Rams – a supposedly respectable group got handled so easily on Monday night.
The Patriots – still on track to make history defensively – weren’t handled quite as easily. But they were handled in that 37-20 win, giving up 210 yards rushing.
Sunday, the 49ers get their shot. And they probably aren’t going to be the team to stop the Ravens either.
Before we delve into the insight provided by Niners coach Kyle Shanahan on what makes the Ravens – and Lamar Jackson so different – first digest just what Baltimore is doing on the ground.
They have run for 265, 182, 203, 173, 138, 269, 199, 210, 136, 256 and 285 in their 11 games. They have been under 5 YPA once in a game (3.8 when the Steelers held them to 138 on 40 carries).
With 2,316 yards on the ground so far, the single-season record for team rushing (3,165 set by the 1978 Patriots) is in reach. Actually, with the Ravens averaging 210 yards per game on the ground, they may obliterate it in the final five games.
Jackson, of course leads the way with 876 yards on 124 carries (7.1 YPA). Why is it happening? A few reasons. First, the Ravens haven’t just dabbled in the multi-faceted ground attack, they’ve embraced it. It’s not just a package of plays, it’s the offense. Also, the utilization of run-pass option (RPOs) has evolved so that everyone – from the backs to the linemen to the tight ends and receivers – have come up and matured in the system. The Ravens have the right personnel to carry out the ground game with three talented tight ends (Mark Andrews, Nick Boyle and Hayden Hurst have combined for 92 catches), a battering running back in Mark Ingram and whippet-quick outside receivers in Marquise Brown and Willie Snead.
Meanwhile, this approach is the zag to the zig of what defenses are doing. Around the league, base personnel is sometimes five or six defensive backs and smaller hybrid linebacker/safeties and lighter defensive linemen on the field. They are ripe for bullying. The Patriots have toggled back and forth between light and heavy offensive personnel for years. The Ravens don’t toggle.
But Jackson makes it go because he’s not a running quarterback, according to Shanahan.
“He’s just different in that he’s a running back when he has the ball,” he explained. “(Jackson does not run and then slide) … he’s a running back out there, and a quarterback when he’s throwing, but he can run hard. You’ve got to bring him down. He can take the hits and he also can deliver them.”
It’s a great observation. The Bills Josh Allen, for instance, will also play into contact and make defenses tackle him. But he’s not as elusive as the least elusive running back in the league and he doesn’t know how to absorb contact like a running back (witness him getting KO’d by Jonathan Jones). Jackson could conceivably be an upper-echelon back if he were just lining up at running back and taking handoffs all year.
Asked if what Jackson us doing is similar to the Wildcat or what the Redskins did earlier in the decade with Robert Griffin, Shanahan replied, “It was only one year doing that and not many people did play it that well. I think teams hadn’t seen a lot it at that time, so teams were pretty simple, eight-man fronts all the time, which was real fun to run the zone-read versus that.
“It helped all our outside zone, but now there is so much more,” he said. “This isn’t just zone-read. This guy runs quarterback power, quarterback counter, all types of running back runs. It’s not just a race to the sideline. I don’t think it’s real comparable. You’ve got to be ready for anything. You’ve got to be ready for a wildcat offense, but the wildcat guy is still a quarterback too. That brings a lot of changes.”
Really, it comes down to math. When Jackson is a running back, the Ravens are 11-on-11 with the defense. There’s an extra blocker involved. Which means defenses need to send extra manpower closer to the line of scrimmage. But Jackson’s power and elusiveness in traffic negate the extra humans.
And if he decides to throw?
“The way they run the ball downhill, it just scares teams to death and it opens up the passing game,” longtime NFL quarterback Matt Cassel said on this week’s Patriots Talk Podcast. “Who’s not going to try to stop run first? And he can still throw the ball accurately. You have to commit to the box, you have to commit to the run and that leaves single coverage on the outside.”
And Jackson’s made great strides as a thrower so that he’s delivering accurately on the slants and drags that are opening up in the middle of the field. Twelve of his 15 completions against the Rams were inside the numbers. It’s easy pitch-and-catch.
So how does it work on Sunday for the 49ers?
Their strength, Jackson said this week, is “Speed. All 11 to the ball, that popped out on the screen, and their front four is dangerous.”
They are also a team that can be run on. Only twice all season has a team failed to average 4 YPA against the Niners defense and that was in Weeks 2 and 3.
And quarterbacks like Kyler Murray (13 carries, 101 yards in two recent games) and Russell Wilson (6 for 53 three weeks ago) have had their way because that speed the Niners have too often is used against them.
They bite. They overpursue. They overrun the quarterback. They create running lanes.
Jackson and the Ravens beat the Patriots fair and square but one thing New England can take solace in is that A) it took several singularly outstanding plays along the way, B) the Patriots made some uncharacteristic blunders with penalties and C) they did get things buttoned up after the initial onslaught.
Will the 49ers be able to say the same thing if/when Jackson runs through them in the rain in Baltimore? And is this a dry run for the Super Bowl?
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