After a 2013 season in which the Baltimore Ravens rush attack averaged a historically poor 3.1 yards per attempt, the run game in the Charm City has been nothing but positive.
Ranking fifth in the NFL in rushing yards (1,027) and tied for third in touchdowns (nine), it’s starting to look like Baltimore has one of the best ground games in the NFL. This is due to a lot of things: new offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak, a wildly improved offensive line, Justin Forsett (who is 4th in the NFL in rushing yards), and to a lesser extent (but not to go unnoticed), rookie Lorenzo Taliaferro.
When the Ravens drafted the former Coastal Carolina standout in the fourth round of the 2014 NFL draft, the initial thought wasn’t that he’d need to make a major impact for the offense this season. At the time, the Ravens still had Ray Rice, Justin Forsett was already on the roster (granted, nobody thought he’d be THIS good this season) and Bernard Pierce was getting healthier and readying for a bounce back year after a poor 2013 campaign.
But Rice’s departure opened a door for Taliaferro as the third running back on the roster, albeit that still didn’t assure any inherent playing time during his rookie campaign. In order to achieve that, he’d have to outperform Pierce, who is in his third year with the Ravens.
Midway through Taliaferro’s rookie campaign, it’s starting to appear as if he’ll be the uncontested number two running back on the team sooner than later.
The process for Taliaferro began in the preseason, when he led the NFL with 243 rushing yards. That didn’t earn him anymore playing time than expected heading into the regular season, though; he’d have to earn his playing time by outperforming Pierce during his limited on-field time to start the regular season.
Taliaferro did just that, as he put himself on the map in Week 3 against the Cleveland Browns. After not having a single carry in each of the team’s first two games, Taliaferro bursted onto the scene in Cleveland by amassing 91 yards and one touchdown on 18 carries.
He followed that performance up the next week with a 58-yard, one-touchdown performance at home against the Carolina Panthers.
Ever since the Cleveland game, Taliaferro has been a steady participant on offense. That culminated on Sunday against the Cincinnati Bengals for two reasons.
First, the coaching staff felt confident enough in Taliaferro as the backup to Forsett that Pierce was a healthy scratch. Second, Taliaferro scored two touchdowns on seven carries, and also had two catches for 42 yards, including a 29-yard reception.
Thanks in part to Taliaferro’s steady impact on offense and Pierce’s measly 3.6 yards per attempt on 55 carries, it’s time to start buying into Taliaferro as the backup to Forsett. It’s unlikely that Pierce will be inactive on a regular basis for the remainder of the season, but missing out on a key divisional matchup despite being healthy isn’t a good sign.
Taliaferro’s performance on Sunday offered some key reasons as to why he’s such a valuable asset to the offense in a limited role.
Let’s take a look at his top runs against Cincinnati.
Taliaferro’s two touchdown plays can largely be credited to helping keep the Ravens in the game until the very end.
His first touchdown of the day may have been his best run yet as a pro.
On this red zone run to the left, the Bengals diagnose Taliaferro as the ball carrier right away and react.
Instead of following his blocks and either try to break through the scrum or bounce his run to the outside, Taliaferro puts his vision on display and recognizes a cutback lane opening up to his right.
As the momentum of the Bengals defenders carries the entire play toward the left side of the offensive line, Taliaferro cuts back across the play and eludes the defense.
He hugs the backside of the play though in order to quickly find a run lane at the second level.
He uses his powerful leg strength – one of his most valuable assets – to bounce to the outside and hit the hole between two defenders.
Taliaferro isn’t known for his speed per se, but on this play he had more than enough as he shoots the gap between the secondary members and into the end zone.
Watching the play live, this run looked nothing more than a simple design in which Taliaferro just followed his blocks en route to the end zone.
But at second glance, it’s hard not to praise Taliaferro’s vision, leg strength and speed to finish the play. Had he followed the blocks to the left, perhaps he would have gained four or five yards at best.
However Taliaferro’s plus vision worked to his advantage, with the end result being six points for the Baltimore offense.
His second touchdown run wasn’t nearly as impressive, but that’s not to say it shouldn’t go unnoticed.
Early in the play, Taliaferro has an easy run lane to maneuver through.
Where Taliaferro makes the difference between touchdown or not is when he approaches the goal line. As seen above, Steve Smith Sr. has the block on the outside, but a Bengals safety has the inside lane occupied in front of Taliaferro.
Taliaferro has two options: take the lane straight ahead and simply meet the safety at the goal line for a 50/50 shot at scoring or bounce to the outside and attempt to have enough speed to get around Smith Sr. and walk into the end zone.
He wisely chooses the latter, and opts to use his lower leg strength to propel his body toward the outside and out of harm’s way from the oncoming safety.
The shrewd decision by Taliaferro allows him to rub off his teammate’s shoulder and into the end zone.
Quick, correct decisions such as these by Taliaferro can often be the difference when it comes to scoring or falling short of the end zone.
Having a “closer” such as Taliaferro who can come in during red zone situations and get the ball in the end zone for the offense is a valuable commodity.
Not to say Taliaferro is solely a red zone running back, but that’s the area where is skill set is most valued. He has the decision making and vision needed to turn a simple run into a touchdown in short-yardage situations. His skill set is valuable between the 20’s as well, however he doesn’t have the top end speed to break runs loose regularly.
That’s Forsett’s job, while Taliaferro does the dirty work when the offense needs him most. Pierce was once viewed as Baltimore’s “power” back, but that title is starting to belong to Taliaferro.
His dependability as a pass catcher (four receptions on six targets) increases his value, as does his pass blocking ability, which was one of his biggest draws as a prospect.
Using “Zo” in moderation increases his impact, but he’s also shown (against Cleveland and Carolina) that if he needs to be relied on as a player with 15+ carries, he can be.
As the season progresses, expect the gap between Taliaferro and Pierce to widen.