When the Baltimore Ravens substantially upgraded their offensive lineup with the additions of Anquan Boldin, Donte' Stallworth and T.J. Houshmandzadeh this past offseason, many expected the team rely on Joe Flacco and a dynamic aerial attack to spark a deep postseason run.
But after watching the Ravens alter their offensive approach during the final month of the season, it appears that coach John Harbaugh is putting the team's postseason fate in the hands of Ray Rice and a resurgent running game.
While it is not uncommon for teams to increasingly rely on the running game as the season winds down, it is surprising to see the startling offensive transformation the Ravens have undergone over the past month.
In the past three games, the Ravens have averaged 36.3 rushing attempts per game, which represents a significant increase from the 29 rushes that they averaged in the first 13 games of the season. Rice, the league's 10th-leading rusher with 1,220 yards, has been the biggest beneficiary of the philosophical shift. He has tallied 76 carries for 322 yards with two touchdowns over the past three weeks, and thrived as the primary option.
In fact, the Ravens have rolled when Rice has been featured as a runner in the game plan. The team sports a 6-1 record when he has received 20 or more carries, and his ability to shoulder a hefty workload allows the Ravens to stick with the grind-it-out approach when it doesn't yield big results in the early stages of the game.
Although Rice entered the league regarded as a diminutive workhorse following a stellar career at Rutgers, few expected the 5-foot-8, 212-pounder to thrive between the tackles. However, he has been exceptional running inside, and his ability to run through initial contact often catches defenders off guard. He combines that toughness with tremendous balance, body control and vision to make stop and start cuts in traffic. Throw in his explosiveness on the second level, and it is easy to see why the Ravens have suddenly built their offense around Rice's dynamic talents.
But Rice isn't the only contributor to the ground attack, as the team also routinely incorporates Willis McGahee and Le'Ron McClain into the rotation. McGahee, an eighth-year pro with three 1,000-yard seasons in his career, has excelled as the team's short-yardage and goal-line specialist. He runs hard between the tackles, and has a knack for finding the soft crease in the defense. No longer a threat to take it the distance, McGahee does most of his damage on an assortment of 3- and 4-yard runs that eventually wear down opponents late in games.
McClain also factors into the equation, despite limited touches this season. The bruising fullback is only two seasons removed from a 900-yard season, and is occasionally thrown into the backfield as part of the Ravens' "Jumbo" package. While his role in the offense is continuing to evolve, he could be a vital part of the Ravens' run-heavy package as they move through the postseason.
In addition to the talented rushers, it is the presence of one of the league's top offensive lines that has led to the philosophical change. Michael Oher, Ben Grubbs, Matt Birk, Marshal Yanda and Chris Chester are big, physical blockers adept at moving defenders off the ball, so the decision to lean on the running game allows them to be more aggressive at the point of attack. They come off the ball in unison, and their ability create a solid push at the line of scrimmage often allows Rice and McGahee to get to the second level untouched. Given the Chiefs' inability to deal with a physical Oakland Raiders offensive line, the Ravens will certainly pound the ball between the tackles early and often in their wild-card matchup.
With their renewed emphasis on the run, it would seem like the Ravens are attempting to cast Flacco as a game manager rather than playmaker for their playoff run. In looking at the numbers, his passing attempts have fallen from averaging 33.1 attempts a game during the first 13 weeks of the season to only 19.3 attempts the past three games. Although he finished the season completing 62.6 percent of his passes for 3,622 yards with 25 touchdowns and only 10 interceptions, Flacco could be more productive with fewer attempts due to facing stacked defenses geared to stop the rejuvenated ground game.
Eight-man fronts leave corners in single coverage on the outside, and the strong play-action fakes will create big-play opportunities in the passing game. Given Flacco's proficiency at throwing the deep ball, the Ravens could see their upgraded receiving corps make several big plays on long balls against the Chiefs.
The Ravens are poised to make another postseason run behind a resurgent running game that has suddenly found its rhythm. With a potent aerial attack still in place to serve as an effective complement, Baltimore has a formula that could result in a title at season's end.