Ravens backfield trio a unique challenge

To date, the Vikings have faced teams with one featured back each. That will change Sunday when Baltimore presents a unique challenge with three solid running backs. Vikings defenders talked about the unique styles of the running backs and the challenges they present.

There was a time not too long ago that if a team didn't have one featured back, there was something very wrong with them. A running back-by-committee approach was viewed as something horrible – a sign of team that didn't have a running back good enough to give the ball to 20-25 times a game.

Over the last couple of seasons, that has changed dramatically. Tennessee posted the best record in the league with the running duo of Chris Johnson and LenDale White. Carolina did the same in the NFC with DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart. More than half the teams in the league go with Running Back 1A and 1B on a regular basis, which is a shift from history in the NFL.

To date, the Vikings haven't faced such a scenario. Cleveland went primarily with Jamal Lewis. Detroit leaned heavily on Kevin Smith. San Francisco was intending to use Frank Gore almost exclusively before he was injured on his first carry of the game. Green Bay used Ryan Grant on almost all of its running plays and St. Louis' entire offense is centered around Steven Jackson. The Vikings have won their first five games going against run offenses that center around a single back with a specific set of skills. That is going to change Sunday.

As the Vikings prepare to meet the Baltimore Ravens, they do so going up against a three-player backfield. Ray Rice is the speed player who has seen most of the carries. Le'Ron McClain is a grinder who plays fullback, but proved last year he could be a bruising featured back. Willis McGahee is the classic NFL running back, with the combination of size, strength and speed that made him a coveted trade prospect when the Ravens got him from Buffalo two years ago. Individually, each player could potentially be a starter somewhere in the NFL. Collectively, they bring a lot of problems to opposing defenses, as evidenced by their sixth-ranked running attack.

In their first three games, the Ravens successfully utilized all three and the result was a 3-0 start. In their last two games, they leaned much more heavily on Rice and the result was two losses. It is expected that the Ravens are going to go back to what worked so well for them in September, and knowing they've struggled to get the running game established last week is no source of comfort for the Vikings defense.

"It's like going into a cage with a hungry cat," defensive end Jared Allen said. "They're on a two-game slide; they have a lot of motivation to win."

With three players with such different skill sets, it makes the preparation a little more difficult. Rice is a slasher who can make big plays by getting to the corner and finding open space. McGahee is a one-cut runner who hits the hole hard and can create his own openings. McClain is a between-the-tackles mauler who isn't pretty or flashy, but gets the job done. It's an approach few teams have employed and the Vikings are going to have to adjust on the fly as one player enters the game and another exits.

"These situations are unusual," linebacker Ben Leber said. "You have situations where you're facing a two-headed (running back) monster, but in this case it's a three-headed monster. I think the best thing to do is not even to think about it. They all have different styles but they're used pretty much the same way in the offense. They all can catch the ball out of the backfield. It doesn't matter who's in there. We have to make sure we keep our eyes on them whenever they're in a pass situation. We can't get into thinking because this guy is in there, they do these things. We just have to play. They do so much shifting and motioning before the ball is snapped, it will be tough enough just to get in position before the snap."

The Vikings plan isn't to over-think the situation. While each back is different, the key to succeeding in stopping the run is going to be based on what they've seen on film and how the Ravens use their running game, not the individual unique talents of each of the three backs.

"You have to prepare for the scheme, not the running style," linebacker Chad Greenway said. "You just have to make the tackles. McClain is going to be a physical guy. Rice and McGahee are opposite runners – Rice gets very low to the ground – but they do a lot of the same sorts of things. We just have to be ready and stop the scheme."

Up front, Pat Williams said he isn't concerned about the different running styles of the Baltimore trio. He has one thing in mind: Getting his hands on them and bringing them down with some force. To Big Pat, it doesn't matter if a team has one back, two or 10, his objective remains the same.

"Our thing is just smashing people," Williams said. "It doesn't matter to me which back they have in there, once we get hold of them, they aren't going nowhere."

The Ravens running game may well turn out to be the stiffest challenge the Vikings have faced during the 2009 season. It is expected that all three backs will get their turn, but the Vikings aren't going to change what they do defensively to tailor a scheme to stop Rice or McGahee or McClain. Their focus will be to find out how each of them is used and attack from there.

"You just have to play who is in there," Allen said. "That's where watching film and breaking down schemes and strategy comes into play. But at the end of the day, you just have to tackle. The way to stop any good running back is to stop him before he starts. If we can get penetration in the backfield and get hold of them before they can get the momentum going, we'll be fine. If we don't and they get into our secondary, that's where big plays come from. The battle is going to be won up front. It always is – week in, week out. It's who's going to make more plays up front."

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