It seems fitting that on a team searching for its offensive identity, the Ravens' leading rusher on opening day was a fullback who prefers to think of himself as a tailback.
Meet Le'Ron McClain, a second-year player whose fullback profile belies his fast feet and mischievous smile.
Throughout his rookie season, McClain told anyone who would listen he could run as well as he could block. He told veteran Willis McGahee enough that the two enjoyed a running joke.
Jokes stopped Sunday. That's when McClain bulldozed the Cincinnati Bengals for 86 yards to reinvent himself in the Ravens' backfield. Even McGahee, who dressed but didn't play in the win, could appreciate the effort.
"Le'Ron always complained that he was a tailback," McGahee said this week. "He finally showed off that he can run that ball."
How much McClain's role will change is uncertain. McGahee is expected to return Monday in Houston against the Texans, after almost five weeks of rehabilitation from left knee surgery Aug. 11.
What has become clear is the Ravens' new-found flexibility in the backfield. Rookie Ray Rice was the workhorse through the preseason and punched out 64 yards against the Bengals. There's also 16-year veteran Lorenzo Neal, a pure fullback who brings leadership intangibles with his blocking.
That makes four backs with four different skill sets, a key ingredient in Cam Cameron's offense.
"That's all about Cam's system," center Jason Brown said. "It's very versatile in all areas, being able to attack a defense while using your whole offense."
McGahee is itching to play and this week asked for a "full workload" in Houston. That appears unlikely, given the developing situation in the backfield.
But getting McGahee back against a team that was shredded for 183 rushing yards in a blowout loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers is significant.
"I think it'll be a huge plus," Cameron said yesterday. "He's taking more reps this week. We're working to increase his stamina and conditioning. ... As of today, he's got a role in this game."
The offensive linemen are embracing the new-look backfield, too.
"No matter what happens now, we'll have a fresh back in there," right tackle Adam Terry said. "That allows the overall offense to become a better unit."
Said left guard Ben Grubbs: "All our backs are great at what they do. Le'Ron is more versatile than people think. He can run straight ahead or he can use his feet to get on the edge."
McClain, a fourth-round pick from Alabama a year ago, was quiet for three quarters against Cincinnati. He had seven carries for 22 yards. In the fourth quarter, he got the ball on 12 of 21 plays from scrimmage, not counting a pair of kneel-downs by quarterback Joe Flacco. He gained 64 yards in the quarter and produced five first downs.
At one point in the team's clock-killing drive, he got the ball six straight times.
"I wasn't expecting it," McClain, 23, said of his workload, "but I took advantage of it. Wear their defense down, that was my main goal. I think I accomplished it."
After a sluggish start to training camp, McClain has made up for lost time. He reported to camp at a rotund 278 pounds and failed the team's conditioning test. He has dropped 22 pounds since to get down to 256, he said.
He would like to get down to 250, but "I don't want to get too low, because I know I've still got to block."
And while McClain concedes he is still a fullback, he couldn't resist the temptation to look ahead at what might be.
"I'm looking forward to this week in Houston," he said. "I just hope my role gets bigger as we go along."
* Rookie, Rutgers
* 5 feet 8, 205 pounds
* Last week: 22 carries, 64 yards
* 2nd year, Alabama
* 6 feet, 256 pounds
* Last week: 19 carries, 86 yards