Instead of using one runner as the centerpiece, Pro Bowl alternate running back Willis McGahee's nagging knee injury has prompted offensive coordinator Cam Cameron to distribute the football between bruising fullback Le'Ron McClain and shifty rookie second-round draft pick Ray Rice.
Through one game, the Ravens (1-0) lead the NFL with 229 rushing yards per contest as McGahee has yet to carry the ball after undergoing arthroscopic surgery in August to repair his left knee.
"If you just look at the careers of running backs, they aren't the longest careers in this business with the shots that they take," Cameron said. "You can't have enough good backs, and we're fortunate that we're hopefully able to stay healthy and get Willis back. If we have a group of guys that we know that can help us win, we'll play them all."
Although McGahee has returned to practice, McClain and Rice's emergence could potentially relegate last year's featured rusher who generated 1,207 yards and seven touchdowns into a complementary role.
"I want a full workload, but that's something the coaches have to figure out," McGahee said.
While McGahee said he feels prepared for the grind of 20 to 25 carries, it's unclear if his knowledge of the playbook, timing and conditioning are truly up to par after skipping the majority of the offseason minicamps and reporting to training camp in less than optimum shape.
Heading into last weekend's game against the Houston Texans that was postponed due to Hurricane Ike, Cameron and coach John Harbaugh only said that McGahee was expected to have a role in the game plan. They never specified whether he would start or just see spot action.
McGahee was on the active roster for a 17-10 win over the Cincinnati Bengals, but didn't play as McClain gained a career-high 86 rushing yards on 19 carries while Rice rushed for 64 yards on 22 carries in his first NFL start.
For McClain, it marked a major step forward after reporting to camp at a hefty 278 pounds and flunked the running test before quickly losing 22 pounds of his mom's cooking. Now, the former Alabama standout looks quick and robust at 256 pounds.
"Le'Ron always complained that he was a tailback," McGahee said. "He finally showed that he can run that ball."
McClain pounded the Bengals in the fourth quarter with 12 runs for 64 yards and five first downs. His tackle-breakin g style allowed the Ravens to burn the final seven minutes off the clock.
"I didn't know I was going to get the ball that much," McClain said. "It was fun, and I just want to keep this thing going."
Cameron said that McClain's extended workload was by design, not an impromptu reaction to his effectiveness against Cincinnati.
"We told him we'd like him to get between 15 and 20 carries and like to get Ray between 15 and 20," Cameron said. "I said, ‘I don't know how many snaps you're going to get. I can't guarantee that, but the effort will be made for that to happen.'"
The Ravens also feature four-time Pro Bowl fullback Lorenzo Neal in a jumbo-sized backfield with McClain that features a combined 500 pounds of bulk to throw at linebackers.
Neal, 37, has blocked for a 1,000-yard rusher for 11 consecutive seasons, providing invaluable experience. He trucked a Bengals defender on a 13-yard reception.
"I think anything you would say about Lorenzo, you would probably underestimate what he really does," Cameron said. "He's a great leader, but he's kind of an under-the-radar type leader in the locker room.
"You saw a little piece of his leadership come out in the game after he caught the little screen pass, and then you see the other guys react to him. It will be interesting to see at the end of the season who the best fullback in the league is."
Cameron envisions a similar situation to how he developed Atlanta Falcons running back Michael Turner behind San Diego Chargers star LaDainian Tomlinson. However, this shapes up as a more competitive environment.
McGahee will need to establish himself with the new coaching staff to earn playing time.
"We're going to play the guys that give us the best chance to win," Cameron said. "In San Diego, you have a Tomlinson, and, all of a sudden, here comes a Michael Turner. Well, you don't sit and wait until LaDainian gets hurt before you start playing Michael. You play them both.
"If we get to the point where three or four are playing well, we're going to put them all in the game at the same time. If you're active and you're healthy and you can help us win, we're going to play you because the team comes first. If Willis is healthy and he's ready to go, we'll find a way to get them all in there."
Now, the Ravens are preparing to take on a Cleveland Browns defense that has allowed 142 rushing yards per game to rank 24th in the league against the run. They have allowed three rushing touchdowns and 4.6 yards per carry.
In a 10-6 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday night, the Browns surrendered 105 yards on 28 carries to running back Willie Parker.
The Ravens are expected to continue running north and south against the Browns.
"We're not an east-and-west team," Cameron said. "We may throw the ball a little east and west, but we're not an east-and-west running team. We want our backs downhill."
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.
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