The Baltimore Ravens running back depth chart was decimated by injuries before they even played their first game of the 2021 regular season, yet the cupboard is not bare. While the season-ending injuries to J.K. Dobbins, Gus Edwards, and Justice Hill were devastating at the time, the flashes that second-year pro Ty’Son Williams showed throughout the preseason inspired hope that the team’s rushing attack, which is still spearheaded by quarterback Lamar Jackson, won’t drop off as precipitously as many anticipated.
Through the first three games of the season, the Ravens still rank first in rushing offense and Williams has looked like the cream of their running back crop despite receiving sporadic touches. In limited opportunities, the 2020 undrafted runner proved that he is the most explosive and natural fit for Offensive Coordinator Greg Roman’s scheme.
He has carried the ball 27 times for 164 yards and scored one touchdown thus far and his 6.1 yards per carry is second on the team, second among all running backs in the league, and fifth among all players in the league with a minimum of 20 carries.
The reluctance of Roman and the Ravens to make him the featured back to start the year is reminiscent of how a former one-year wonder for the Ravens went from sparsely used backup to the top of the depth chart.
In 2017, the Ravens opened the season with former local product Terrance West as their starting running back but by the end of the season, their leading rusher was Alex Collins. The former fifth-round pick of the Seattle Seahawks out of Arkansas in 2016 was signed to their practice squad after being cut. By Week 2, he was elevated to the active roster and by Week 3 he had made his first career start.
Like Williams is doing now, Collins quickly proved that he was the best man for the job and was deserving of a larger role. However, he didn’t come close to 20 carries until Week 7, only surpassed 100 yards twice that year and still managed to finish with 973 yards rushing and six touchdowns in 15 games including 12 starts.
Collins is fondly remembered for his graceful Irish river dance touchdown celebration but when he was on the field he was a powerful runner who exploded into the second level, ran through arm tackles, made decisive cuts, and could rip off chunks of yardage any time he touched the ball.
You know Alex Collins is all over this reel!— Baltimore Ravens (@Ravens) January 10, 2018
Our Top 5 Runs of the 2017 Season pic.twitter.com/21pM15SzgK
Williams has exhibited all of those attributes with the ball in his hands and looks even more natural as a pass-catcher. He could be poised for even greater success since the threat Jackson presents defenses as a runner will open up even more room for him to roam.
One issue that Collins struggled with early-on in his breakout season that could also be leading to some of the team’s hesitancy towards leaning heavier on Williams is ball security. Collins lost fumble in two of his first three games as a Ravens. Even though he’s been fortunate enough to be near the sideline for one and have a teammate in the right place at the right time for the other, Williams has fumbled the ball the same number of times in as many games to start this year.
Look away Ty’Son Williams managers pic.twitter.com/Q356xvxQa8— PFF Fantasy Football (@PFF_Fantasy) September 20, 2021
Lack of ball security is one of the quickest ways that a running back can find himself on the bench, off the team, or even out of the league. Ravens Head Coach John Harbaugh has an especial disdain for fumbling and running backs that struggle holding onto the ball fall out of his good graces and into the doghouse no matter how talented they are or how significantly better they are in comparison to their teammates.
While Williams has yet to actually turn the ball over, Harbaugh doesn’t tolerate players that show tendencies that may lead them to be turnover-prone if given more opportunities to touch the ball. Nevertheless, the fear of a ball getting ripped or punched out and hitting the turf one out of every 50-100 times that one of his best weapons touches the ball shouldn’t dissuade him from taking that minimal risk.
Down the stretch of the 2017 season, it became clear that Collins was not only the Ravens best running back, he was also going to be an integral piece in their push to the playoffs that year.
Unfortunately, their playoff hopes were dashed heartbreakingly in the final week of the regular season against the Cincinnati Bengals in a 31-27 defeat that sent the Buffalo Bills into the postseason. Even though the Ravens came up short in that game, it wasn’t for a lack of effort or production on Collins’ part. He touched the ball 22 times for 96 yards and his 17-yard rushing touchdown where he reversed field and sprinted to the opposite pylon cut the Bengals’ lead to a single possession in the third quarter.
Williams shouldn’t be on as short of a leash as he appears to currently be on and the Ravens might just have a plan in place to gradually increase his workload in increments. However, even if he does currently have the edge in snaps played over veterans Latavius Murray and Devonta Freeman, he should not be getting less carries to both or either in any given week. Both players are older and don’t have nearly as much burst, acceleration, lateral agility, or all-around juice as him.
Williams could be far more effective, help the offense be more efficient, productive and convert more short-yardage situations. He’ll help them stay on the field longer as well as increase their likelihood of finishing in the end zone instead of having drives stall in the red zone and settling for field goals.
A season-ending injury to former Raven Kenneth Dixon opened a door for Collins to eventually be promoted to the active roster. A slew of uncanny injuries at the position this year has cleared a path for Williams to be the lead back.
It only took the Ravens two weeks to realize that their running game operated at its best with that year’s No. 34 in the backfield. It seems to be taking a little bit longer than expected this time around. I believe that they’ll soon come to the realization that this year’s No. 34 needs to average more than 10.6 touches a game if they want to achieve their ultimate goals and consistently field the best version of their offense.