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OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The three-headed monster running game the Baltimore Ravens envisioned and trumpeted during the preseason has yet to materialize.
Despite the Ravens’ unbeaten status, the running backs haven’t been a major part of that winning equation.
Although it’s a sidebar to the bigger-picture story of the team’s unprecedented 3-0 start, it’s a general rule in the NFL that every contender needs a reliable rushing attack.
However, Baltimore (3-0) ranks 16th in the NFL with an average of 109 rushing yards per contest. Even with the presence of former NFL Offensive Player of the Year Jamal Lewis, former NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year Mike Anderson and preseason cult hero Musa Smith, none of the Ravens’ backs have eclipsed the century mark.
“We’re just getting warmed up,” Lewis said following the Ravens’ 15-14 victory Sunday over the Cleveland Browns. “We’ll get it cranked up. Not every game is going to be a big game for the backs, but we definitely have the line and the people in the backfield to get the job done.”
Against the Browns, Lewis gained a season-high 86 yards on 21 attempts. The Ravens finished with 340 yards of total offense, 86 on the ground for a 3.2 average per carry. Among the Ravens’ 70 offensive snaps, there were only 27 running plays. That was largely because the Ravens had to overcome a 14-3 deficit, according to Ravens coach Brian Billick.
“Because of the nature of the game, you’d like to have run the ball more, naturally,” Billick said. “It was tough sledding in there. Our efficiency was as good as they have given up.
“Not the real big plays that you’d like to have to put you over that 100-yard mark, which typically is what it takes. It would have been nice to be in a game where we could have pressed that a little bit more.”
Lewis has rushed for 234 yards on 58 carries, ranking him 11th among NFL running backs. Averaging 78 rushing yards per game, he’s on pace for a 1,248-yard campaign.
Following a rough preseason where he was sidelined by a nagging strained left hip flexor, Lewis hasn’t demonstrated his old Pro Bowl form as far as explosiveness and breakaway speed. His stiff-arm hasn’t been as effective, and he has often gone down on first contact, not dragging tacklers the way he once did.
On the first play of the second half against the Browns, Lewis rumbled off right tackle Tony Pashos’ block for a 21-yard gain. Perhaps the old Lewis might have scored, but he was dragged down by linebacker D’Qwell Jackson.
Lewis’ lone touchdown run came in the season opener against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. “I’m ready, so whenever they want to let me go,” said Lewis, emphasizing that his hip is no longer an issue.
Smith is Lewis’ primary backup, but hasn’t piled up the yardage. He has 38 yards on 12 carries, rushing for eight yards on three carries against the Browns. Anderson, who has rushed for 59 yards on eight carries this season, wasn’t utilized at all against Cleveland. He gained 1,014 yards and scored 12 touchdowns last season for the Denver Broncos.
“We didn’t get Mike in the other day, which we would have liked to have done,” Billick said. “We didn’t have the number of run snaps that you typically would like to have at the end of the day because of what we had to do in the second half.
“That, long-term, is going to suit us very well in terms of the wear and tear on your backs and how fresh we can have a combination of backs going into any given game.”
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times in Westminster, Maryland.