Over the Baltimore Ravens past two games they’ve given running backs J.K. Dobbins and Gus Edwards 29 carries on gap/man designs. Those 29 carries have generated an astounding 240 yards (8.2 yards per carry) to go along with 12 first downs and one touchdown. The Ravens have been ‘stuffed’ on those runs just once. In fact, only six of those rushes have been held to three yards or less. Dobbins EPA on such carries is 7.35, while Edwards has generated an EPA of 4.17. On a per attempt basis, their EPA per carry of 0.41 and 0.38 are truly staggering.
For reference— in the Ravens historic 2019 and 2020 rushing performances they generated an EPA per carry of 0.07 and 0.25 on gap rushes. In fact, since 2019 the highest EPA per carry on such attempts in a single season is Deebo Samuel, who produced an EPA per carry of 0.4 in 2021. This is an extremely longwinded way of saying— you can’t have much more success than what the Ravens had on power and counter concepts over the last two weeks. That’s why it was so perplexing to see them completely abandon it in the 4th quarter of their 13-3 loss to the Cleveland Browns Saturday.
J.K. Dobbins, who has racked up an NFL high 245 yards and 8.8 yards per carry over the last two weeks, wasn’t given a single touch in the fourth quarter following a 37-yard carry with :43 remaining in the third quarter. Edwards last touch came with over 14 minutes remaining in the fourth quarter.
Both John Harbaugh and Greg Roman were asked at press conferences throughout the week about neglecting to call a run in their final few possessions and had a synchronized sentiment:
Harbaugh: The last we saw RB J.K. Dobbins was a 37-yard rush in the third quarter, and he didn’t get a carry in the fourth quarter. Did he suffer an injury or a setback? (Kyle Barber) “No, we were down by 10, got the ball right with maybe 11 minutes left in the fourth quarter. It wasn’t that we were opposed to running the ball, but when you run the ball, the clock runs, and we were looking at how many possessions we were going to get. [We] called more passes. We didn’t run the ball in the fourth quarter once we got after 11 minutes. So, you look back at that real hard and you say, ‘Yes, we could have run it.’ We were hitting them with some good runs, and maybe we would have popped a few runs because we were doing well. That conversation is one that we had yesterday, but by the same token, you’re down two scores and it’s going to be two possessions, probably, to have the chance to get it back. So, you want to make them as quick as you can. I know we did want to get the first score before we would have to onside kick. That was kind of one part of the discussion. So, once we got to that second possession, at that point in time we were definitely throwing the ball. So, I think we’re talking about that time, 11 minutes to maybe eight minutes, where we could have done some runs at that point. And, we talked about that.”
Roman: What went into why we didn’t see RB J.K. Dobbins much in the fourth quarter after his 37-yard run? (Cordell Woodland) “We were down two scores, and we got into a different mode. Would I have gotten into that mode that early? It’s debatable; I usually wouldn’t get into it that early, but you can go back and second guess that all you want. That’s really the reason. [We] got more into a hurry-up mode, tried to change the tempo of things, tried to get things going in a different way. We were moving the ball really well in that game, just shooting ourselves in the foot.”
More or less, their sentiment was that with 10:49 remaining, they didn’t have enough time to run the ball. In a vacuum, that approach is pragmatic. However, there are elephant sized show how little nuance and how much negligence goes into those thoughts, not only in hindsight but during the game. The lowest hanging fruit is that the Ravens had all three timeouts when they took possession down 13-3 with over 10 minute remaining. They needed a score and a stop with all of their timeouts in their pocket. The most important thing was simply scoring to make it a one possession game. Even more prevalent is their current inability to push the ball downfield with any regularity, or even at all.
According to Sports Info Solutions, Tyler Huntley has never thrown a catchable pass over 25 air yards. While Huntley has made plays across his 13 NFL appearances, the Ravens chose to put the onus on him throwing to a receiver room that has become a barren wasteland due to a multitude of factors. Essentially, the Ravens steered away from the run game to avoid a fight against the clock. . . that their pass game would also battle. Roman even touched on the fact that, in his words, “Cleveland was playing super passively” in terms of coverage. What that means is that the Browns were playing soft cushioned zones and allowing Baltimore to throw quick and underneath then triggering downhill when Huntley hit the top of his drop back. That’s what Cleveland wanted Baltimore to do and Roman played right into their hand.
Additionally, Baltimore generated explosive runs, reeling off gains of 37, 25, 25, 16, 12 and 10 in the first three quarters Saturday. Over the last two games, Huntley has averaged 3.5 average net yards per pass attempt, the third lowest figure in the NFL over the last two weeks. Excluding kneels and scrambles, Baltimore average 6.4 yards per rushing attempt, nearly double the output per pass attempt. Take away all QB runs and that number jumps up to 7.2 yards per rushing attempt.
Numbers paint a detailed picture of how thoroughly negligent it was for Harbaugh and Roman to drop their run game, but to simplify things even further. . . who is making plays for Baltimore’s offense? Edwards and Dobbins were creating for Baltimore’s offense were the engine behind every modicum of success throughout the game. The duo found the rhythm and was gashing Cleveland effortlessly. The Browns had no answer for their power and counter concepts outside of occasional blind luck, yet Roman and Harbaugh became too much a product of situational thought and stopped feeding their most productive players. They didn’t learn their lesson early in the first quarter when they attempted a fullback dive with Pat Ricard on a long 4th-and-1. Instead of letting Ricard lead the way for Edwards on a similar concept like iso or lead, where Edwards has been the best short yardage runner in the NFL since he was activated midway through the 2018 season converting over 80% of “power situations”, which are defined as rushing attempts on third or fourth and two or shorter.
This article could go into a wormhole of how dreadful Cleveland’s run defense has been this season— historically bad— but to kick a dead horse, what have Harbaugh and Roman preached for years? Their identity is to run the football, control the clock, hit play action off of their run game and play stingy, sound defense. They called 16 drop-backs in the first half in what appeared to be an effort to “establish the pass just for the sake of it. The grand irony is how much Baltimore has invested in their run game, which is one of the most beautifully complex and diverse in modern NFL history. They have a myriad of fullbacks, tight ends and now, finally, a stable of running backs that are consistently efficient. Down two scores, they lost sight of their bread and butter, as well as what their current inefficiencies were.
With a squandering five-win Atlanta Falcons team coming to town, will Baltimore drink their own poison? Excluding kneels and scrambles, over the Falcons last five games they’ve allowed a staggering 171.2 yards rushing per game while ranking 32nd in stuff rate and 22nd in EPA allowed per rushing attempt. Additionally, they rank 25th in defensive rush DVOA and don’t have a single front-seven player who ranks in PFF’s top 90 run defenders on the year. Against man/gap concepts the dirty birds could use a bath, allowing 5.4 yards per attempt.
Atlanta will have a rookie quarterback, Desmond Ridder, making his first career road start in the NFL. The Ravens’ defense has allowed 12 points total across their last two home games. Baltimore doesn’t need to “establish the pass.” They have a limited yet mobile backup quarterback and one of the most nuanced rushing attacks in NFL history. It’s apparent that the coaching staff let in-game situations cloud their overarching philosophy and identity in Cleveland. With the Jets losing to the Jaguars, Baltimore just needs a Dolphins or Patriots loss to secure a postseason bid. Hindsight is always crystal clear, but it’s evident that Baltimore should look back on a loss knowing they ran the ball 40 times against an unimpressive front-seven rather than any other alternative. If they didn’t learn that lesson last week, then it may very well be time for heads to roll in Charm City.