Ravens' game plan on offense running against NFL grain

Behind J. Lewis, team content to rush the ball nearly 60 percent of time

October 07, 2003|By Jamison Hensley | Jamison Hensley,SUN STAFF

The Ravens' offensive fortunes will rest on a wishbone mentality.

One of only two teams in the league with more yards rushing than passing, the Ravens have not hidden the fact that they are dedicated to a run-oriented philosophy for the rest of the season.

While the average for NFL teams this season is to pass 55 percent of the time, the Ravens project to run close to 60 percent. According to coach Brian Billick, the optimum play selection would break down to 35 runs and 25 passes.

The Ravens' smash-mouth style has been an in-your-face as well as an in-your-ear attack. Over the past three games, every team has known Jamal Lewis would get the ball - the Cleveland Browns even received a phone call from the running back - but none has been able to slow the league's top rushing attack.

"We're taking it back old-school," left guard Edwin Mulitalo said. "It's like the 1940s before they even had wide receivers."

The Ravens' receivers have been used more for blocking than catching these days. The team's rushing average (196.3 yards a game) nearly doubles its league-worst passing output (103.5 yards), an unheard of statistic in the modern game.

Their approach has been so straightforward that they basically invite defenses to stack the line of scrimmage.

The Ravens have lined up in their U-formation - two tight ends, two running backs and one receiver - on 107 of 281 snaps (38.2 percent). This compact alignment allows teams to place eight, nine or 10 defenders close to the line against the Ravens' eight blockers.

Being outmanned has done little to stop the Ravens, who have rushed an average of 28.5 yards a game more than the next closest team, the Carolina Panthers.

"It's like being the bullies on the playground," said blocking tight end Terry Jones, who regularly seals the left side with tackle Jonathan Ogden. "You either give us the lunch money or we take it from you."

The Ravens are designed to manhandle defenses up front. Their offensive line is one of the biggest in the league, averaging 6 feet 5, 339 pounds.

The belief is if the Ravens can block every defender except one or two, Lewis can run over or around them for a big gain.

"I think it plays toward our forte," Mulitalo said. "I'm excited because that puts the responsibility on us."

Sunday's game against Arizona may be a tougher-than-expected challenge for the Ravens' running game. The Cardinals rank 11th in run defense and are tied for fourth in fewest yards per carry (3.2).

But Arizona has not faced a running back the caliber of Lewis and the Ravens aren't likely to alter their game plan. With a strong defense and sound special teams, the Ravens are built around a grind-it-out system and believe they can march into the playoffs in a fashion similar to their Super Bowl run.

"It's who we are, and there's no denying who you are," Billick said. "What I'm advocating could be one for the record books."

To complement the running game, the Ravens need more consistency from rookie quarterback Kyle Boller and their receivers. Under their formula, the Ravens expect Boller to complete 15 to 18 passes per game.

"The exciting aspect of it is to be able to run against that configuration and be successful leaves a great potential for one-on-one coverage outside that I believe we will be able to hit," Billick said.

By establishing the run early, it makes it easier for the Ravens to run late.

On his first through 10th carries, Lewis is averaging 6.2 yards a carry. On his 21st through 30th attempts, his average jumps to 7.3 yards.

"Pounding defenses wears them down," Lewis said. "It gives you the edge in the second half. If you can control the clock, it takes you back to our Super Bowl year."

Wearing out Lewis is a concern. The Ravens will closely monitor his carries since he has a hard-hitting running style and has to endure going against defenses crowding the line.

The original plan was to limit Lewis to 380 carries, or about 24 a game. The league's leading rusher is on pace for an NFL record 2,444 yards but probably would need closer to 400 carries to break Eric Dickerson's single-season mark of 2,105.

"Given those numbers, he could creep over 400 and I'll be concerned," Billick said. "So is that possible or not? I don't know. That's going to be dictated by the games."

Whether he breaks the record or not, the Ravens are in agreement that giving the ball to Lewis gives them the best chance to win.

"That's a great feeling when someone knows you're going to run the ball," fullback Alan Ricard said, "and you still smash it down their throats."

Next for Ravens

Matchup: Ravens (2-2) vs. Arizona Cardinals (1-4)

Site: Sun Devil Stadium, Tempe, Ariz.

When: Sunday, 4:15 p.m.

TV/Radio: Ch. 13/WJFK (1300 AM), WQSR (102.7 FM)

Line: Ravens by 5 1/2

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