Ravens, Browns prove the running game still matters in the NFL

Lamar Jackson, Browns, Ravens MNF
MNF's thriller showed how important the running game still is. Photo from Dawgs By Nature.

The running game is supposed to be a mere afterthought in the NFL in the 21st century. It’s a thing of the past, just a way to kill the clock.

Running backs have been steadily devalued in both the draft and free agency. Teams have chased quarterbacks and their favourite receivers instead.

Well, the Baltimore Ravens and Cleveland Browns want you to know the running game still matters. These two AFC North rivals played a run-first, instant classic on Monday Night Football to cap Week 14.

The Ravens won 47-42, but this was no shootout through the air, although it should’ve been. It was billed as a duel between two Heisman Trophy-winning quarterbacks, Lamar Jackson and Baker Mayfield.

Both had their moments at Cleveland’s FirstEnergy Stadium, but this game was ultimately all about the run. The Ravens and Browns combined for 369 yards and nine touchdowns on the ground.

This was a running back’s paradise. For the Ravens, that meant J.K. Dobbins and Gus Edwards splitting 20 carries, 102 yards, and three touchdowns between them.

The true rushing sensation was Jackson. He sped his way to 124 yards and a pair of scores on nine attempts. This was Jackson allowed to be Jackson. He’s a runner first, who puts defenses in the ultimate bind, chase the quarterback, or keep covering his receivers.

Cleveland’s defense never got it figured out.


Fortunately, the Browns had their own awesome rushing threat. The one-two punch of Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt bullied the big, bad Ravens all night.

Chubb rumbled for 82 yards and two touchdowns on 17 carries. Hunt added 33 yards and another score on the ground, as well as six catches for 77 yards and a receiving touchdown for good measure.

Chubb and Hunt are the oil in the engine for Cleveland’s offense. They are both on pace to rush for 1,000 yards.

Chubb is closer with 881 yards, but Hunt’s tally of 772 is far from shabby. They could become the second duo to both surpass the 1,000-plateau for the Browns after Earnest Byner and Kevin Mack achieved the feat in 1985.

Byner and Mack delivered the goods for Marty Schottenheimer, a coach defined by his love for power running. So-called “Marty Ball” is supposed to belong in a bygone era, but today’s Browns are helping keep the tradition alive.

Head coach Kevin Stefanski ran the offense for the Minnesota Vikings in 2019. His scheme featured a lot of two-tight end sets, heavy use of fullback C.J. Ham and a steady diet of Dalvin Cook.

Stefanski brought the same blueprint to Cleveland. He signed in-line tight end Austin Hooper from the Atlanta Falcons in free agency, then drafted John Mackey award-winner Harrison Bryant in the fourth round, despite already having David Njoku on the roster.

Cleveland also traded a seventh-round pick to the Denver Broncos to get Stefanski his fullback, Andy Janovich. Fullback is supposed to be a dead position, but try telling that to the Browns.

Look at the way Janovich absorbed a linebacker in the hole to spring Chubb for his second touchdown on Monday night:

Stefanski knows every talented back is better with a punishing lead blocker. The lesson’s not lost on the Ravens, who rely on Patrick Ricard to open holes for Dobbins, Edwards, and Jackson.

Ricard’s a 303-pound, converted defensive lineman playing fullback. Now that’s committing to the running game.

The Ravens will value the run as long as Greg Roman is calling the offense. He’s the most creative proponent of the ground game in the NFL.

Roman has helped Jackson take the league by storm, the way he briefly did for Colin Kaepernick once upon a time with the San Francisco 49ers. Those Niners teams also leaned on groundhog Frank Gore and overloaded offensive lines.

These Ravens aren’t so different:

Six linemen and a 300-pound fullback. Let me run a few plays behind that lot.

Roman’s true success has been giving Jackson license to break the pocket and punish defenses with his legs. It’s not something many teams like to indulge in too often, even if they originally drafted a quarterback for his dual-threat skills.

Eventually, most head coaches want the quarterback to settle down and protect himself by running only when necessary. And sliding at the end of those runs to avoid needless hits.

Jackson has the freedom to ad-lib and seize the moment to run when the opportunity is there. Read-option plays still keep defenses honest and allow No. 8 to choose between making a play with his feet or his arm.

Those choices create most of Jackson’s long runs.

Roman is also smart enough to design specific runs for Jackson. The latter’s first rushing touchdown of the night was a great example of scheme and athleticism combining to create something special.

Baltimore showed the Browns heavy personnel. Roman had tight ends Mark Andrews and Eric Tomlinson on the field, along with Ricard.

All three split out into receiver alignments before the snap, leaving Jackson in the backfield with Dobbins. The Ravens had spread the Cleveland defense out and provided Jackson with room to dart through the middle.

Two linemen pulling from left to right cleared the way on a superbly designed counter specifically for the quarterback to run.

There’s so much more to this than three yards and a cloud of dust.

Plays like this prove that the running game is not only still relevant in today’s NFL. For some teams, it’s their best means of chasing a Super Bowl.

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