HOUSTON -- The production looks the same but there's something a tad bit different about the Baltimore Ravens' running game this year. It's less about the quarterback darting and dancing and more about the backs doing their fair share of the dirty work. Oh, Lamar Jackson still gets his, of that there can be no doubt. It's just that there's less pressure on his play-making and more emphasis on strength in numbers.
Baltimore's 33-16 win over the Houston Texans was an illustration of how much the Ravens are evolving as an offense. They gained 230 yards on the ground (compared with 51 for the Texans), with an assortment of runners making significant contributions. That attack wore down Houston's defense and gave the Ravens their second win of the season. It also told us Jackson won't have to do nearly as much heavy lifting as he did during his MVP campaign last year.
These Ravens still want to slug it out. The difference now is that their defense is stronger, their quarterback is more mature and -- after going 14-2 in 2019 and losing in the Divisional Round of the playoffs -- they have a clear determination to finish what they start.
"It's a new year and we're trying to create a new identity," running back Mark Ingram said. "We were able to run the ball (effectively), and we feel like we have the best backfield in the league. We just want to run hard and have the league put respect on our names."
It actually was hard to imagine the Ravens being better at running the football than they were last season. Baltimore set an NFL record with 3,296 rushing yards in 2019, breaking a mark that had stood for 41 years. The Ravens essentially adopted an old-school approach in an era where other teams are throwing the football like crazy. They prided themselves on that throwback mentality, while watching Jackson vault into superstardom as a result.
Now they've simply doubled down on that approach, with more runners becoming integral parts of the attack. Gus Edwards led the team in rushing on Sunday, with 73 yards on 10 carries. Ingram added 55 yards while scoring a 30-yard touchdown out of the Wildcat formation. Jackson actually had the most carries -- with 16 attempts for 54 yards -- but rookie J.K. Dobbins added his own highlight. He ripped off a 44-yard run on one of the only two opportunities he had to carry the football.
That variety of options made a huge difference in this contest. The Ravens' defense stifled quarterback Deshaun Watson for most of the second half, just as its running game began to dominate the final two quarters. To understand how much the Ravens relied on the run to deflate the Texans, Baltimore didn't even attempt a pass for the final 12 minutes of the game. They literally kept grinding on the Houston defenders as this contest wound to its inevitable conclusion.
The Ravens were so productive on the ground that head coach John Harbaugh gave game balls to all the running backs. He could've handed out a few more to their blockers, as well.
"Our offensive line has been doing a great job and our backs have been explosive," said Jackson, who also completed 18 of 24 passes for 204 yards and a touchdown. "They're doing their jobs and we needed that today."
The Ravens will need that all season. Last year was about Jackson's emergence, proving that they could win with an unconventional quarterback producing unexpected brilliance. The league wasn't ready for all the ways Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman unleashed Jackson on opposing defenses. The Ravens also knew there would be more tactics used to keep their star quarterback from thriving for a second consecutive season.
There was plenty of attention paid to Jackson's need to improve as a downfield passer -- which he has done -- for this offense to go to another level. However, the Ravens will be better as long as they don't ask too much from Jackson, at least not when it comes to putting his body in danger. He took a few big shots on Sunday, but it's clear Baltimore is working harder to let others endure that kind of punishment. As proof, Jackson only had seven carries in the season-opening win over the Cleveland Browns.
This isn't to say Jackson is going to stop being a dangerous runner. That element is exactly what separates him from so many other elite quarterbacks, and he usually does a good job of not exposing himself to too many violent hits. It's just that these Ravens are better on defense and more diverse in how they can attack opponents on offense. All those options in the backfield mean Jackson can do even more damage on play-action passes downfield.
It also means the Ravens can better set up their defense to take over games. As Ingram said, "Our mindset (coming out in the second half) was that we had to finish 30 minutes, put pressure on them and give our defense a big lead so they could go hunt. We didn't run the ball as much in the first half, but I just told all the backs to stay on point."
That advice turned out to be critical in the end. It will be even more important when Baltimore faces its next opponent, the Kansas City Chiefs, on Monday night. The Ravens thought last season was going to end in a dreamlike fashion after they finished the regular season with the league's best record. Instead, they lost to Tennessee in a home playoff game, and the Chiefs wound up hoisting the Lombardi Trophy.
The Ravens actually have a lot in common with that Kansas City team from a year ago. The Chiefs suffered a devastating loss to New England in the AFC title game during the 2018 season, then set their sights on becoming world champions in 2019. They now stand as the benchmark for every other team in the league. When asked about how quickly his squad will turn the page on this victory over Houston, Harbaugh said, "They know who's coming next."
So this is the early showdown that will give us a sense of where the AFC race is heading. The two best teams will meet in Baltimore, with the outcome having the potential to greatly influence who ends up with the sole bye in this year's revamped playoff model. The Chiefs have won 11 straight games. The Ravens have only lost once in their last 15 contests.
There will be plenty of hype around the quarterbacks, as Jackson and Kansas City's Patrick Mahomes have won the last two league MVP awards. However, the game may not come down to their exploits alone. Baltimore has plenty of other playmakers in its backfield who ultimately could decide the outcome. As the Ravens proved on Sunday, they're more than willing to unleash them, as well.