The powers of deduction are rarely able to accurately predict which running back the Baltimore Ravens will feature from game to game in the NFL’s fourth-ranked rushing attack with offensive coordinator Cam Cameron creating an unpredictable twist on a run-first offense.
The Ravens (7-4) are pounding out an impressive 143.5 yards on the ground per contest, utilizing a committee approach that has alternated nearly equally between veteran running back Willis McGahee, rookie Ray Rice and bruising fullback Le’Ron McClain.
Rice and McClain have been the leading rusher among the running backs four times apiece. And McGahee, who has struggled with various injuries and didn’t play in two games, has led Baltimore in rushing three times while eclipsing the century mark twice.
Prior to the Ravens’ 36-7 shellacking of the Philadelphia Eagles, McClain didn’t have a strong grasp that he would get the opportunity to rush for a career-high 88 rushing yards and a touchdown on 18 carries. Meanwhile, McGahee and Rice carried seven and eight times, respectively, for just eight and seven yards.
"I really don’t even know," McClain said. "I just go with the flow. Whenever coach tells me to get in as a blocking fullback, get in as a halfback, I just go out there. I really don’t know. That’s on coach and them.
"I just had that mentality going into the game to do what I do, run north and south. They’re a smaller defense, get on those guys, wear them out a little bit. That’s my mentality for any team I go against."
McGahee is the leading rusher overall with 489 yards and five touchdowns followed by McClain’s 459 yards and six touchdowns and Rice’s 382 yards and no scores.
Ostensibly, the Ravens will go with the hot hand each week. Whether that translates into that runner getting the football on a consistent basis the following week has varied considerably.
One week after Rice gained a career-high 154 yards on 21 carries against the Cleveland Browns, he tallied just 17 yards on seven carries in a rout of the Houston Texans where McGahee produced a season-high 112 yards and two touchdowns on 25 carries.
Yet, in the two games following McGahee’s top performance this year, he has combined for just 26 yards on 16 carries.
"We go into the game with a plan every week, and obviously the best laid plans change often," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "We were going into that game with the idea that we were going to get each back a significant amount of carries. We put the number, say, at 10 maybe. It wasn’t exactly that, but we wanted to get each back around 10 carries, change up the pace a little bit on their defense.
"All three guys bring a different style to the table, and we wanted to use all three backs in this game. We got Le’Ron going a little bit so he got a few more carries, but that was pretty much the game plan going into the game."
For Cameron, it has been a difficult task to decide which back is best suited to succeed against a particular defense.
Against the Eagles’ undersized, swift, aggressive gap-shooting defense, Cameron called McClain’s number bulling straight ahead. Attempts to send Rice or McGahee outside against a fast front seven were completely unsuccessful as they combined for just 15 yards while averaging one yard per carry.
"I think Cam does a great job," Harbaugh said, "Cam sticking with the offensive game plan, not panicking like so many coaches might do in a tough defensive game.”
McClain has been sterling in the red zone, repeatedly plowing through defenders. At 6-foot, 260 pounds, he’s bigger, stronger and quicker than most of the linebackers assigned to tackle him.
"When we are down on the goal line, I just feel like I don’t want to be stopped," McClain said. "I just keep plunging forward and try and get to the end zone."
For McGahee, this football-sharing approach has marked a major departure from last season when he led Baltimore with 1,207 rushing yards and made the Pro Bowl as an injury replacement.
After a rocky offseason where he skipped all but a few minicamp sessions, McGahee reported to training camp admittedly out of shape and hurt his knee. He recovered from arthroscopic surgery, but has been hobbled by a sprained ankle as well as rib and eye injuries this season.
His longest run is just 17 yards, which ranks behind Rice (60 yards), wide receiver Mark Clayton (42 yards), quarterback Joe Flacco (38 yards), and McClain (28 yards). And he’s averaging just 3.5 yards per carry to rank behind Rice (4.1) and McClain (3.9).
Despite a lack of ideal production and consistency, Harbaugh defended McGahee and said he remains in the team’s plans.
"I think Willis is running the ball very hard," Harbaugh said. "He’s been physical. He’s been a north-south runner when he’s had an opportunity to be. I’m sure there are times where he’ll look at tape and say, ‘You know what? I could’ve done this a little bit differently or that a little bit differently.’
"Other times, you’ll look at it and say he made the absolute most out of the play based on what was there for him. But we’re happy with Willis. He’s had a couple breakout games, and we sure want a couple more as the season goes on. So, I think we’re counting on him the rest of the way."