Alex Collins rewards Ravens' faith in him with big night

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The Baltimore Ravens came into this game averaging 4.3 yards per play, ranking 31st in the NFL. Joe Flacco was in the middle of his worst professional season and the offense had scored just 10 touchdowns overall.

Injuries at every position of the Ravens offense were a persistent issue both heading into the season and during its first seven weeks. Baltimore's starting running backs in two-down banger Terrance West and utility pass-catching specialist Danny Woodhead have both missed multiple weeks. All-Pro guard Marshal Yanda is out for the year. All of Mike Wallace, Jeremy Maclin and Breshad Perriman have all missed at least one game this year. With a rap sheet of injuries like that, it's hard for any scoring attack to gain and establish any sort of momentum.

It was painfully clear headed into Week 8 that Baltimore's offense needed a facelift in order to find an identity. During their Thursday night thrashing of the Miami Dolphins, the Ravens finally seemed to uncover that identity. It came in the form of second-year running back Alex Collins.

Alex Collins was a fifth-round pick by the Seattle Seahawks in the 2016 NFL Draft but failed to make their roster this year amid a crowded backfield, losing his spot to undrafted rookie Chris Carson. He was signed to the Ravens practice squad on Sept. 3rd and wouldn't make their active roster until almost two full weeks later following Woodhead's injury.

Through the first seven weeks of the season, it appeared the Baltimore coaching staff was hesitant to trust Collins as a mainstay in the offense. He averaged just 10.3 carries per game, fumbled twice, had zero catches and was on the field for more than five passing plays just once heading into Thursday night. Yet, despite all that, the Next Gen Stats made apparent what the eyes could tell while watching this team. Alex Collins is simply the best pure runner on the Ravens' roster.

Despite his lack of volume, Collins made plays every time he got chances in his first six games, averaging 4.2 yards after defenders closed within one yard of him (NFL average - 3.7). Next Gen Stats' yards after close correlates well with running back success and helps quantify their ability to create yards on their own. Collins was excellent in this regard, as his 4.2 average ranked 11th out of 48 running backs with more than 40 carries headed into Week 8. For comparison's sake, injured starter Terrance West (3.46) and Javorious Allen (3.54) both trailed him in this metric.

Against the Dolphins on Thursday night, Collins put it all together for the national stage. The Ravens finally handed him a featured workload with a season-high 18 carries and two passing game targets. He turned in the first 100-yard rushing game for Baltimore all season and tacked on 30 receiving yards. The second-year runner consistently churned out positive yards.

As he's been all season, Collins was a dynamic player in the open field and at creating yards for himself. Collins averaged 5.51 yards after defenders closed within one yard of him. He became the focal point and engine of the unit after Joe Flacco, who was in his hottest stretch of the season, left the game in the second quarter following a penalized hit. Even when the Dolphins dedicated extra resources to stop him, Collins made them pay. He ran against a loaded box on seven of his 18 carries tonight and churned out 8.14 yards per rush.

Going forward, one would have to imagine this performance, in conjunction with his efforts in limited looks, will force the Ravens' coaches to expand Collins' role. Allen is a useful role player and should remain a superior passing game asset, but he simply doesn't bring the juice Collins does to the ground game. Even in a performance better than his season average, Allen's 3.81 yards after close doesn't compare to his teammate's output.

If Collins does sustain the momentum he established tonight, the Ravens may well have finally uncovered a team strength amid a wayward offensive season. Despite turnover on their offensive line dating back to the offseason and continuing into the 2017 contests, Baltimore sports a solid run-blocking unit. The Ravens running backs averaged 0.67 yards before defenders close within one yard of them in Weeks 1 through 7 (NFL average - 0.29). Next Gen Stats yards before close shows the inverse of the previously highlighted metric and helps us quantify the offensive line's run-blocking performance.

Even on a night when the Ravens' run-blocking checks in below their normal output with a 0.13 yards before close average, a talented runner in the backfield did more than enough to create on his own. For a team that was in desperate need for someone to emerge as a difference-maker, Thursday night showed that they have one in the backfield.

Even if he's come from the most unlikely of places, the Ravens now have no choice but to continue to feature Collins as their primary running back. You can't put the genie back in the bottle nor keep this cat from staying in the backfield (we're sorry, but no tracking data is available for the real cat that made a TNF cameo). Should he continue to match his efforts all season and most especially his output against the Dolphins, Collins may just be the needed piece in uncovering an offensive identity.

To check out more of the Next Gen Stats data for yourself or get a definition for some of the stats, check out the NGS site.

Matt Harmon is a writer/editor for NFL.com, and the creator of #ReceptionPerception, who you can follow on Twitter @MattHarmon_BYB and Instagram or like on Facebook.

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