NFL

Pressure on Edwards & Jackson to help Ravens' running game rule without Dobbins

By Sports Desk September 05, 2021

The Baltimore Ravens are set to be without a key cog in their running game after J.K. Dobbins was lost to a torn anterior cruciate ligament.

Dobbins was taken off on a cart during the Ravens' win over the Washington Football Team in their preseason finale last Saturday, meaning he will miss his second year in the league after an extremely encouraging rookie season.

The Ravens have enjoyed the benefit of the most efficient running game in the NFL in each of the past two seasons.

However, their position as the league's best in that regard could be under threat without the services of a running back who looked primed for a breakout year in 2021.

Dobbins' dynamic rookie year

Baltimore's second-round pick last year, Dobbins finished his rookie season with 805 rushing yards and nine touchdowns on 134 attempts.

His rushing average of 6.01 yards per carry was the best in the NFL among running backs, with his team-mate Lamar Jackson (6.32) and Kyler Murray (6.16) the only two players to rack up yardage on the ground at a more efficient rate.

Running with a combination of burst, elusiveness and balance, Dobbins excelled at staying on his feet after contact from a defender.

He led running backs with an average of 2.68 yards after contact per attempt and was also third in yards before contact per rush with 3.43.

In other words, Dobbins' short-area speed allowed him to quickly advance to the second level of the defense, where his ability to evade defenders enabled the former Ohio State star to consistently gain critical additional yardage.

And, following his injury, it is debatable whether the Ravens have the players in their running back room to effectively replace his skill set.

Can Edwards step up?

Gus Edwards will likely take the bulk of the workload in Dobbins' absence and there are numbers that suggest the drop off may not be that steep.

Edwards was eighth with an average of 2.27 yards after contact per attempt last season, while his 3.06 yards per carry on rush attempts where there was a run disruption – which is where a defender wins his matchup against a blocker – was superior to Dobbins' 2.51.

However, Edwards averaged 2.78 yards before contact per attempt, speaking to his lack of burst compared to Dobbins. His missed tackle rate per touch of 0.144 was also vastly inferior to Dobbins' 0.237.

Edwards has proven himself an elusive runner, but not to the same extent that Dobbins was last year. Lacking the acceleration to get the second level as quickly as Dobbins can, Edwards does not have the upside of his less experienced team-mate.

Limited seasoning is an issue for the man with whom Edwards is set to share the ball-carrying burden.

Justice Hill has only 70 carries to his name in his NFL career. Of those, 58 came in his rookie year in 2019, and Hill was below the average for backs with at least 50 rushing attempts in yards before contact per attempt (2.41), yards after contact (1.55) and yards per carry on runs with a disruption (1.97).

With little experience and underwhelming production, there is not much to suggest Hill can help fill the void left by Dobbins and, if Edwards is unable to rise to the challenge, the pressure will be firmly on quarterback Jackson through the air and on the ground.

Jackson looks to take flight

Jackson's position as the top runner by yards per carry last season could hardly be considered a surprise, the 2019 MVP having consistently confounded defenses on the ground since entering the league in 2018, with his upside as a runner in the open field enabling the Ravens to operate one of the most diverse rushing attacks in the NFL.

The threat of Jackson continually forces defenses to hesitate at the mesh point when he either hands the ball to the back or keeps it himself. As long as Jackson is on the field, the Ravens running backs should have the opportunity to capitalise on the doubt he puts in the minds of defenses.

Yet if defenses manage to do a better job of mitigating Jackson's impact as a runner than they did last year or in his MVP season, then he will need to take another leap throwing the ball after a somewhat underwhelming 2020 in that regard.

Jackson delivered an accurate, well-thrown ball on 78.3 per cent of his passes last year, just above the average for quarterbacks with 100 pass attempts of 78 per cent. He was also disappointing as a downfield thrower, posting a passer rating of 89.1 on throws of 21 or more air yards that was 17th among quarterbacks with at least 25 such passes.

More consistency from wide receiver Marquise Brown, who won his matchup with a defender on plays where he was targeted only 58 per cent of the time in 2020, would greatly aid Jackson's cause. The Ravens star will also hope rookie first-round pick Rashod Bateman can return from groin surgery in time for Week 1 and quickly display the form that saw him finish fourth among Power 5 receivers with 25 targets or more in big play percentage (50.4) in his last full college season in 2019.

Dobbins' injury is far from a death knell for a Ravens running game that will always be a concern for opposing defenses with Jackson at quarterback, and Edwards' previous numbers indicate he can keep it operating at an efficient rate. There is now a distinct lack of depth in the backfield, though, and – minus the dynamism Dobbins provides – it would greatly aid Baltimore's quest to be the AFC's Super Bowl representative if the Ravens can win games on the back of Jackson's rapport with his receivers.

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