The Pittsburgh Steelers knew precisely what to expect from the wall of flesh and muscle coming at them.
“That is the head scratcher,” All-Pro defensive tackle Cam Heyward said afterward, processing their defeat by blunt force.
The Ravens did not have their usual magician at quarterback performing his sleight of hand and foot. They had largely given up on moving the ball through the air. They were going to hand the ball to a running back and send him forward behind a phalanx of eight brawny, ornery blockers.
And it worked. They overpowered their rivals in hostile Pittsburgh, running 42 times for 215 yards while completing just 11 passes for 104 yards. This was football from a different age. But was it football that could sustain a team through multiple weeks of a playoff run in 2022?
That’s the question the Ravens and their fans are asking now that they have clinched a playoff berth despite scoring a total of 56 points and throwing for a total of 584 yards over their last four victories.
“Yes, definitely,” running back J.K. Dobbins said when asked if they can string together postseason wins relying largely on ground power. “I think our O-line is really good, I think we run the ball really well and us running backs run the ball pretty well. So, I think it could definitely take control of a game. I know there are some high-powered offenses out there. We can maybe neutralize them a little bit with the run game.”
It’s not just about the output; the Ravens are choosing to play this way. In last Saturday’s 17-9 win over the Atlanta Falcons, they became the first team in 2022 and just the second since 2013 to run zero snaps in 11 personnel (one running back, one tight end, three wide receivers), per TruMedia. Conversely, they have run 32.9% of their snaps this season in 22 personnel (two running backs, two tight ends, one wide receiver), first in the league by a mile, with the Falcons second at 11.1%.
Offensive coordinator Greg Roman has long spoken of his love for “medieval” football, but this is a new frontier in brutality, even for him. From 2019 through 2021, the Ravens still went with 11 personnel, the dominant grouping across the NFL, more than any other alignment — 44.6% of their snaps, per TruMedia. Through the first 16 games of this season, they’ve used 11 personnel on 12.3% of snaps.
They’re relying more on blockers and less on skill-position players than any of their rivals.
When was the last time we saw a Super Bowl winner that depended on efficient running and heavy personnel groupings as much as these Ravens do? You might think of the 2015 Denver Broncos, with quarterback Peyton Manning a shadow of his prime self, but they still threw for more than twice as many yards as they ran for. Or perhaps the 2013 Seattle Seahawks? But a young Russell Wilson passed extremely efficiently for that juggernaut. We have to go back to the early aughts to find truly run-dependent champions such as the 2005 Steelers and 2000 Ravens. Those teams also depended on smothering defenses.
The NBC Sports analysts who will help preview and call the Ravens’ Sunday night rematch with the Steelers offered a range of opinions on their prospects for a deep playoff run. But they were unanimous in saying this offense will need the big-play component provided by quarterback Lamar Jackson, who has not started since Week 13 because of a knee injury.
“They can definitely get it done with this personnel grouping and a heavy reliance on the run game,” said Football Night in America analyst Tony Dungy, who won a Super Bowl as coach of the Indianapolis Colts. “That, coupled with stout defense can be a winning formula. … However, there will come a time when they are going to need to make some plays in the passing game. I think they need Lamar Jackson back in the lineup to at least to have the threat of the passing game.”
Sunday Night football game analyst and former NFL receiver Cris Collinsworth called the Ravens’ offense “the most unique in the NFL.”
“With the addition of Roquan Smith and a very talented secondary, the Ravens will play in close games in the playoffs,” he said. “But, to beat the top teams in the AFC they will need big plays on offense. … Lamar Jackson has to be great. We have all seen Lamar be great. He is fully capable of winning a Super Bowl; now he just has to put together a Joe Flacco-type run in the playoffs.”
Studio analyst and former All-Pro defensive back Rodney Harrison called Jackson’s health the “biggest point” for the Ravens looking forward. “Lamar Jackson has to be healthy for them to ride that along with the improvement of the defense right into the playoffs,” he said. “It’s not about style points. It’s about finding a way to win, and that’s their formula.”
So the experts are not ruling them out, despite their paltry point totals from recent weeks. NFL teams are running the ball more efficiently and on a greater percentage of snaps in 2022, ending a decades-long trend toward high-volume passing. Perhaps the Ravens are simply at the front of a rumbling curve.
Roman said it’s a natural reaction to the evolution of defenses designed to counter spread-out passing attacks.
“There’s a lot of Vic Fangio defense out there right now; a lot of split-safety, etc.,” he explained. “If you can run the ball effectively, and by effectively, I mean A: make first downs running it and B: run it when you have to run it, the value there is greater than it’s been in times past, just by the nature of how defenses are playing. Now, that’s going to change week to week, but overall, big picture, there’s more value there now for sure. I think you can see it; it’s starting to show.”
The Ravens’ heaviest sets have been their most effective. They rank 28th in the league in expected points added per play in 11 personnel, per TruMedia, but jump to sixth in 22 personnel and seventh in 21 personnel (two running backs, one tight end, two wide receivers).
Roman said their personnel choices are always tailored to the week — windy, bitterly cold conditions contributed to their eschewing 11 personnel against Atlanta — and subject to change.
“I think just the fact the players were able to get that going and really make it productive is why we stuck with it so much,” he said. “We’ve kind of found a little niche, and it’s working, but things are cyclical. … I think a lot of different things are on the table as far as what we can or will do.”
An esprit de corps builds among the team’s ball carriers and linemen when the power game is clicking. Center Tyler Linderbaum and right tackle Morgan Moses both grade among the league’s top dozen run blockers, per Pro Football Focus, so the Ravens are playing to their strengths when they send Dobbins and Gus Edwards behind these human road graders.
“Especially this time of year,” Linderbaum said when asked if a robust ground game can carry the team. “Being able to run the football, being capable of running the football is important. I think we’re starting to jell together and improve on some things, but the good thing is there is a lot of stuff that we can still get better at, and there are still more yards out there for us to get. So, when the time comes, and they need us to run the ball, I think we have the guys to do it.”
It doesn’t hurt that Dobbins and Edwards are the healthiest they have been in two years after both returned from serious knee surgeries. They’ve averaged 7.4 yards per carry over the last three games.
“Just the holes they see, their ability to get through holes and pick up those extra yards breaking tackles and stuff like that,” Linderbaum said. “[They’re] making us look a little bit better than what we are.”
Steelers at Ravens
Sunday, 8:20 p.m.
TV: Chs. 11, 4
Radio: 97.9 FM, 101.5 FM, 1090 AM
Line: Ravens by 2 1/2