Requiem for a Running Game?

These days, when Brian Billick steps to the podium for his post-game press conferences, he can hardly contain himself. His smile is wide enough to rip skin as he discourses on his Zen-master quarterback's recent penchant for 200- and 300-yard passing games. He illuminates the room when recounting another spectacular defensive takeaway.

It's only when the questioning arcs back to the running game that the glum and serious Billick of old returns.

"I really don't know why we're not running the ball better," Billick declared with pursed lips and wrinkled brow following Tennessee game, where his team could only eek out 50 yards on 21 carries. "We do need to run the ball better. I am concerned about that."

Billick has reason to fret. With Steve McNair suddenly oozing chemistry with his receivers and the Ravens achieving about two-thirds of their total yardage through the air since their bye week, the Ravens appear to be morphing into a pass-happy team. Indeed, since Billick has taken over the play-calling, McNair has thrown 23, 31, and 47 passes in his three consecutive games. Although game circumstances certainly dictated these numbers at least in part, the trend is apparent. Are the three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust Ravens becoming only a memory?

Such would be ill-advised. Moving away from the running game and relying too much on a pass-first offense should not be part of this team's long-term aspirations. The Ravens need to keep leaning on their ground attack, keep trying to reassert themselves in the trenches. Passing may win games during the regular season, but defense and running the ball win Lombardis. This may be a cliché, but it's a valid one. The last four teams standing in last-year's play-off hunt -- the Seahawks, Steelers, Broncos, and Panthers – all feature grind-it-out ball control offenses. Pass-first teams like the Colts and Bengals all waved bye-bye earlier. None of the top 12 passing teams in the league last year made it to their conference finals; three of the top five rushing teams did.

The first order of business for the Ravens – and this will certainly be a sentiment not well received by fans of Ravens message boards and call-in shows – is to keep running Jamal Lewis. Run him hard and often. Do not upset the cart at this point, given the 7-2 mark. Sure, mix in your Musa Smiths and Mike Andersons for variety and to keep defenses off-kilter. But keep Jamal as the focal point of the running game.

Jamal has become maligned by fans accustomed to watching him drag Cleveland Browns tacklers behind him and shrug off arm tackles like they were houseflies. But that's not the Jamal that exists anymore, and more importantly, that is not the Jamal Lewis that this team requires. Jamal's running continues to drive this offense and facilitate the passing in ways that are invaluable.

First, unlike in past years, Jamal is not being asked to hoist the offense on his back. We have other ESPN-worthy play-makers now – the Todd Heaps and Mark Claytons. What's essential, though, is that Jamal continues to demand a great deal of respect from opposing defenses. When Jamal is in the game, you commonly see seven, eight, and sometimes even nine defenders pancaked around the line of scrimmage. Billick acknowledged as much after the Titans game. "Even when we started throwing the ball all over the place and even though we had a long way to go back, they built that box," he remarked. "It was one of the reasons we were able to make some plays down the field."

Every time a safety moves up into the box, that's one more one-on-one match-up in the passing lanes, which McNair was able to exploit this week to the tune of 373 yards. A video review of the 16 plays where Jamal carried the ball against the Titans revealed very little running daylight around the line, but expansive tracts of nothingness in the defensive secondary for receivers to wander about at will. As long as Jamal continues to garner defensive respect, he will remain a valuable component of this offense.

Second, Jamal continues to move the line of scrimmage forward. True, four yards per carry for him have become three, but a wise man I know once said yards per carry is the most over-rated statistic in football (personally, I think it's sacks, but that's fodder for another column). If those three yards per carry are helping your team control the clock, control the line of scrimmage, set up your passing game, and keep your defense off the field, than it's doing its job. Jamal currently averages 3.4 yards every time he touches the ball, but that's all downstream mileage. And the second he breaks one of this trademark big runs – and I have no doubt he soon will – that average, along with his confidence, will move skyward quickly. Whereas the Ravens relied on Jamal for five yards per carry in the past, they only need three or four from him today.

Third, Jamal is quickly shedding his reputation of being a fumbler. Turning the ball over is the kiss of death for a running back, as the correlation between turnovers and defeats is one of the sharpest in football. History shows that Jamal typically hands the ball over no less than half a dozen times a season. Through nine games this season, he has only one give-away. Whether you consider it veteran sensibility or a statistical anomaly, the fact remains: as long as Jamal takes care of the rock and moves it forward, he is an asset to the current offensive scheme.

Fourth, Jamal's potential remains vast. He may have lost some wattage on his initial burst (and who wouldn't after a mile and a half of torturous, pound-it-out career yards), and his field vision may be in a mild recession, but Billick is correct in not letting go of the fact that Jamal's potential remains unlimited. Even at a notch below his prime, Jamal remains a powerhouse runner with the ability to break off a long run and the strength to shed tacklers in short yardage. Billick recently acknowledged as much. "Jamal ran hard," he said after the win against the Saints. "But we left some yards on the table which we've got to get done. There could have been a lot more. That could have easily been a 160-, 170-yard rushing day." Work on improving Jamal instead of shelving him.

And finally, it should not go unnoticed that Jamal is not solely responsible for the Ravens running woes. When he was knocking off five yards a carry, Jamal was running behind a virtual citadel of humanity, impervious to swarming defensive lineman. Think Bennie Anderson and Orlando Brown. The Ravens re-tooled line no longer features meat-hook road-graders, but rather more versatile and athletic linemen who are in some cases undersized and less experienced. Jason Brown and Tony Pashos may be great some day, but right now they are solidly adequate.

The Ravens remain on a direct collision course with the play-offs. How they perform in any play-off situation may very well be determined by how stubbornly they continue to at least attempt to run the ball. This, in turn, will allow McNair to better work his magic in a more unencumbered manner. But Billick knows that to make this happen, he will have to improve all facets of the running game, and not just play the walnut shell trick with his running backs.

"We got to be more physical," he said in a recent interview with The Sun. "We got to call better plays, got to design better plays, got to use better technique."

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