Gandalf; the fictional character from the Lord of the Rings, once proclaimed to a Balrog, “You shall not pass!” Having satiated the impulses of my inner nerd please allow me to get to my point. The Ravens defense has had some issues in the secondary that hasn’t quite put that quote into action. The story tells a strangely different tale when it comes to the ground game. It involves injuries, outrageous feats of athleticism from giants, and acts of sheer will. It is just about the halfway point in the season and the thought hit me. Will any running back tally 100 yards in a game versus the Ravens? We should take a look at what the unit has accomplished so far this season.
The first thing to get out of the way is how many total yards teams have put up against this tenacious run defense. Week one the Bengals totaled 79 yards on the ground. In week two the Steelers managed 99 rushing yards. The Browns notched 85 yards running the ball in week three. Week four saw the Panthers scratch out 67 yards. The Colts would crack the century mark as a team and get 127 yards in week five. In week six the Buccaneers amassed 87 yards via the ground game. And finally, this past week against the Falcons the Ravens defense allowed a total of 68 yards. The most yards the Ravens gave up to any one runner was 68 to Ahmad Bradshaw of the Colts. So what runningback; if any, will crack that elusive number? Here is a list of the upcoming candidates.
Next week the Ravens will face the Bengals in a rematch on the Bengals turf. Giovanni Bernard has had a few big games this season, but against suspect defenses such as Atlanta, Tennessee, and Carolina. In the first meeting the Ravens allowed only 48 yards to him. Bernard got pounded in last week’s game against the Colts but isn’t seriously injured.
Up next for the challenge would be Le’Veon Bell and LaGarrette Blount of the Steelers in Pittsburgh. Bell has had some 100 or more yard games this season. The biggest one was the 147 yard game in which Blount also had 118. Blount hasn’t had a game anything close to that performance against the Panthers and Bell tallied only 59 yards against the Ravens. Bell is coming off of two 80 plus yard games.
The Tennessee Titans will come to Baltimore the following week and it remains to be seen if starter Shonn Greene will be healthy by that time. Even if he is the best game he has had so far was in week one with a 71 yard effort. He hasn’t had over 40 yards in any game after that. If he is not available the team will most likely turn to Bishop Sankey. Sankey’s best game on the season has been a 61 yard effort on only ten carries. In his last two games as the starter he tallied 61 yards again and 56 yards respectively.
In week twelve after the bye the Ravens will travel to New Orleans to face a number of backs. Injuries have plagued the backfield of the Saints and they have used Mark Ingram, Pierre Thomas, Khiry Robinson, and may need to use Travaris Cadet depending on the health of Thomas who suffered a shoulder injury in week seven. Ingram had two very productive games before getting injured but came back to face the Lions and was awful. Thomas has seen backup work behind both Ingram and Robinson and is a change of pace option. Robinson has been the go to guy when Ingram was out and has had some success but also some fumbling issues. He’s got two 80 plus yard performances under his belt. Cadet if he’s active will see limited duty.
The next opponent will be the San Diego Chargers and by that time they might have a healthy Ryan Matthews. He currently is trying to recover from a sprained MCL. The team has turned to Donald Brown and he is currently trying to come back from a concussion. He’s missed a couple of weeks so far and if all things are going well for him he should be back by this game. The team has had to rely on an impressive rookie; Branden Oliver. Oliver so far in his three starts has had two 100 plus yard games and also looked pretty good in his week seven performance against Kansas City. The Chargers will have a decision to make once Brown and Matthews are healthy. Based off of performance only I don’t see how they could stop going to Oliver if he remains productive.
The Ravens will travel to Florida to meet the Miami Dolphins and their feature back Lamar Miller. Knowshon Moreno is out for the season with a knee injury and Miller has been forced into starting duty. He’s being backed up by Daniel Thomas and rookie Damien Williams. It is unfortunate because Moreno tore up the Patriots in week one when he was healthy. Since then Miller has shown some life in a 108 yard game against the Chiefs, but has been rather pedestrian since then as his output has been 64 yards, 53 yards, and 61 yards. Both Thomas and Williams see limited touches behind Miller and should not be much of a factor.
Keeping with the Florida theme, the Ravens will play the Jacksonville Jaguars the following week but will do so at home. Jacksonville has used a runningback by committee approach to the season and finally one emerged as a star in week seven. Denard Robinson broke out with a 127 yard game in his first stint as the go to man against Cleveland which was the Jaguars first win of the season. It will be interesting to keep an eye on him in the following weeks. Toby Gerhart is currently out with an injury and could be back by this game, but he hasn’t been much of a factor this season. The third option is rookie Storm Johnson who seems to only give the starter a breather.
Next on the list will be the Texans as Baltimore travels to Houston. And in Houston we may have a problem. Arian Foster when healthy has been on an absolute tear. He’s noticed 100 yards or more in every single game he’s started and finished on the season. He’s been nicked up here and there this season and has missed one game completely and most of another. Aside from that he has been he normally tremendous self. This could be a great game to watch and the biggest challenge to the Ravens run defense.
And the last challenge on the season will be at home against The Browns. The Browns also have a have a three headed attack featuring Ben Tate, Terrence West, and Isiah Crowell. In the first matchup between these teams Tate was hurt and didn’t play. There was some hype around West as he came out of the gates with a 100 yard game in week one. He hasn’t come close to that number since and has also been injured. In limited duty in week one Crowell punched in two touchdowns in what was supposed to be a strong Steelers defense. Crowell has been up and down in his performances but he can be a factor. Tate had a big game in his return against Tennessee but hasn’t been impressive in his two weeks following that 124 yard game. So now that we’ve met all the challengers for the opposition let us take a look at what is to account for the Ravens success.
It all starts in the trenches. Last season Haloti Ngata wasn’t completely healthy and Terrence Cody wasn’t exactly the force the Ravens had hoped for. Chris Canty was the other end in the base 3-4 alignment deployed by Baltimore. Ray Lewis was gone and though Daryl Smith filled in admirably, his cohort was Jameel McClain who wasn’t a bad player but he wasn’t elite. This season Haloti Ngata is healthy and to go along with his eating up of defenders and hole clogging ability he has added the team leadership; currently anyway, for interceptions. Brandon Williams has taken over for an injured Cody and the results have been outstanding. Williams is known for his freakish strength and uncanny athleticism for a big man. He can be seen collapsing the line of scrimmage making progress in the ground game very difficult. He may not make the play himself, but he does his job to take on blockers and free up another player to do their job. At the other end position there has been a rotation of players since Chris Canty has been injured. DeAngelo Tyson, Timmy Jernigan, Pernell McPhee, Lawrence Guy, and Christo Bilukidi have all seen work. McPhee has emerged as a star in the pass rushing game but this line combination has allowed for Daryl Smith and rookie phenom C.J. Mosley to clean up and play as the tackling machines they are. We can’t forget how good Terrell Suggs has become in playing against the run as well. He can often be seen in the backfield disrupting running lanes and making big plays even if he’s not tallying sacks. Elvis Dumervil is a pass rushing specialist but on clear running situations the Ravens will deploy Courtney Upshaw who is a bigger body and more stout against a run. Add in the fact that you have safeties Matt Elam, Terrence Brooks, Darian Sterwart and Will Hill that are not not come up in run support and you have the recipe for a great run defense. Does any team out there have the game plan to solve this defensive puzzle?
The NFL has shifted away from the 30 plus carry a game running back philosophy. Most deploy two backs where one might be the primary ball carrier and see around 20 touches while a change of pace back might see a handful. The emphasis in the passing attack and scoring more points also has seen the emergence of specialists that are more or less receivers and good blockers out of the backfield as opposed to strict runningbacks. Some teams do not even have a full back on the roster anymore and if there is one, he is more of a hybrid H-back type. A player who is a jack of all trades. He could run a bit, block some in the ground game, pass block, and go out for a few catches. So do you see any challengers in this list. I am circling the Houston Texans if they have a healthy Arian Foster. I don’t see any other team or runningback that I think is up for the kind of tenacious attack the Ravens deploy against the run.
The Baltimore Raves cut veteran FB Vonta Leach and MLB Jameel McClain in a move to free up a bit more space under the salary cap. These moves will free up $1.75million and $3.2million under the cap respectively.
The moves do not come as a shock to me. Leach; who is 32, had to wait quite a long time last season to get a deal done with the Ravens. Meanwhile the Ravens have seemingly been trying to prepare for life after Leach as they shifted to more of a one back set, preferring to get another playmaker on the field in the way of a third wideout, or in a dual TE package. Leach was very good at what he did, leading the way for a ground attack, but outside of that box he was limited. He didn’t really get the call in short yardage or goal line situations and he didn’t really catch a lot of passes out of the backfield. He also wasn’t on special teams. Meanwhile the Ravens have another option they just drafted in Kyle Jusczyk who may not be a dominant lead blocker, but does play on special teams and coming out of college was a pass catcher.
McClain is 28 and while he has made a reputation for being stout against the run, he isn’t much of a factor at all in pass coverage and he’s not a pass rushing threat from the LB position. He is very one dimensional and the Ravens defense had gotten exposed quite a bit over the middle in the passing game. It doesn’t help that he was coming back from a serious spinal cord injury and for him to even be back and playing in the NFL is an accomplishment. He isn’t a terrible player, but with the way Ozzie Newsome has been able to find talent around the league I am sure he can find a similar player or better in the free agent market or in the draft. Generally speaking when the Ravens have to cut a guy they like, they manage to bring him back on more cap friendly contracts.
With the cap number growing this season to $133 million (nearly a $10 million increase from last year), Suggs restructuring his contract, the cutting of these two veterans, and with some other possible restructuring down the road the Ravens could very well manage to keep all of the pending free agents on their list. I know they want to keep LT Eugene Monroe, TE Dennis Pitta, and if they can swing it, WR and return man Jacoby Jones. Just from some calculations in my head the Ravens saved about $7.5 million in cap space with the Suggs deal and almost $5 million in the cutting of Leach and McClain, and now the increased cap makes the Ravens about $22 million richer under the cap.