I ask this question with genuine incredulity, because for most of the season, Joe Flacco, with a 13-to-12 touchdown-to-interception ratio and a 78.0 passer rating, has been one of the worst starting quarterbacks in the NFL, but: Is … is the Ravens’ offense … good now? That would’ve been a laughable concept early in the year, but over the past seven weeks, just one team in the NFL, the NFC’s top-seeded Eagles, has averaged more than Baltimore’s 31.8 points per game.
Even with a heartbreaking 39-38 loss to the Steelers on Sunday, the Ravens’ sudden surge on offense has helped them go 4-2 in their past six games, and Baltimore (currently the 7-seed) finds itself in a position to make a run at the postseason. The Ravens’ typically stout defense will still make up the team’s foundation as it finishes the year with a relative cupcake schedule—facing off against the Browns, Colts, and Bengals—but the jump in the team’s ground game could make them a true contender in the AFC’s wide-open playoff field. At the center of that offensive upswing is breakout star running back Alex Collins, a second-year pro out of Arkansas who started the season on the team’s practice squad.
Collins’s path to the cusp of stardom has been an unlikely one. After being selected by the Seahawks in the fifth round in the 2016 draft, he spent most of his rookie season buried deep down the team’s depth chart, carrying the ball 31 times 125 yards and a touchdown in 11 appearances. He found himself even further back in the pecking order coming into this year and was released just before the season, with Seattle instead settling on the combination of Chris Carson, Eddie Lacy, Thomas Rawls, and C.J. Prosise at its running back spot. It’s easy to criticize the Seahawks for what hindsight paints as a bad decision, but Collins never stood out in Seattle’s scheme. It’s telling that Collins went unclaimed by the league’s 31 other teams when he was released, and signed on to the Ravens’ practice squad a few days later.
Before the season kicked off, few eyes were on Collins, who found himself behind Terrance West, Danny Woodhead, Javorius Allen, and Kenneth Dixon (who tore his meniscus and ended up on IR before the season). Even when Woodhead went down with a hamstring injury in Week 1, Baltimore initially added former Bears back Jeremy Langford to the active roster as a replacement rather than promote Collins. Langford’s tenure was short-lived, though—he was waived just two days later—and Collins was brought up to the active roster, playing his part in a committee in his first few games before an injury to West gave him the opportunity for significant touches.
By Week 8, Collins had earned the starting role, and he did not disappoint, rushing 18 times for 113 yards in the Ravens’ 40-0 blowout of the Dolphins and becoming the team’s first 100-plus-yard rusher on the year. He hasn’t looked back since: Over the past seven weeks, Collins has rushed for 460 yards (fourth in the league) at 4.6 yards per carry and five rushing touchdowns (tied for fourth), adding 13 catches for 121 yards through the air. Per Sharp Football Stats, Collins ranks first in success rate among backs with at least 70 attempts (55 percent) on all runs during that stretch, and crucially, he’s first in success rate on first down among backs with at least 40 such attempts (59 percent). That’s helped the team’s normally anemic offense stay on schedule and convert more first downs. In fact, despite playing sparingly over the first eight weeks, Collins is ninth in the NFL in rushing overall and ranks first in Football Outsiders’ DYAR metric (total value) and second in its DVOA (value per rush) among running backs. He’s been, in other words, easily one of the league’s best backs since Baltimore made him its bell cow. The transformation of the team’s run game since he took over has been nothing short of astounding: A Baltimore rush offense that ranked 14th in Football Outsiders’ run DVOA over the first seven weeks is tied for fourth in that metric over the past seven. The rest of the offense, which ranked 29th in offensive DVOA over the first seven weeks, has followed suit, ranking 11th since Week 8.
All of this has happened behind a banged up offensive line, too. That group is missing perennial All-Pro Marshal Yanda and promising guard Alex Lewis, relying on a mishmash of backups in their stead and settling on James Hurst at left guard and Matt Skura at right guard. But the team’s overcome these losses through a combination of factors, all of which are required to put together a consistent ground game: total buy-in from the coaching staff (John Harbaugh talked all offseason about a new-and-improved run game) and play-caller (offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg), cohesion on the offensive line, a solid scheme, and, of course, a talented back that fits that system. The Ravens appear to have assembled that symphony of separate parts, and major credit goes to the team’s senior offensive assistant and run game architect, Greg Roman. Roman was hired in January to revamp last year’s nearly nonexistent rushing attack—and while it may have taken him about half a season to get everyone on the same page, his power-based system seems to have caught hold in Baltimore.
Similar to what he installed in Buffalo and San Francisco before that, Roman employs a devastating mix of styles, tweaking them constantly to keep the defense guessing. Defensive linemen rarely know where a block is coming from because Roman’s schemes employ pulling guards and tackles and lead blocking tight ends and fullbacks in a variety of formations and personnel groups. Collins isn’t particularly similar to either Frank Gore or LeSean McCoy, both of whom have excelled in Roman’s schemes, but he does display a combination of traits those two players have. He uses a blend of power to break tackles, lightning quick feet to change direction and stay balanced, and burst to bounce runs to the outside when an opening presents itself in this scheme.
Against the Steelers, Baltimore used six players on the right side of the line (three linemen, two tight ends, and a wide receiver) to down-block to their left while pulling the left guard, Hurst, to the right as a lead blocker. This multidirectional blocking created a traffic jam in the middle of the field and Collins was able to get to the outside, where his speed really showed up.
The Ravens ran another power play later in the game, this time adding a sweep action by the receiver in the direction of the run. Collins didn’t find daylight right away, but he was patient, saw an opening, and busted the run to the outside to beat the defense to the end zone.
This pulling-guard concept can be used to attack different lanes, and Roman and Mornhinweg like to add some variety to avoid being predictable. Against the Titans, that lead-blocking left guard took on and put a kick-out block on the outside linebacker, and Collins ran the ball inside.
Against the Packers, Roman got a few more players involved in the blocking at the point of attack, running to the right with a pair of lead blockers (a fullback on the play side, and a tight end on the backside), along with a pulling guard for good measure. Collins followed his blocks, bounced it outside, and broke a pair of tackles for a nice gain.
The Ravens also throw in random trap blocks to surprise defensive linemen. They did this a few times against the Dolphins: The offensive linemen on the play side move downfield immediately to block a linebacker, leaving the defensive tackle at the point of attack unblocked—at least at first. This makes the DT think for a split second that he’s about to get a free shot on the running back, but at the last second, another blocker (in both of these plays, a tight end) shows up to force him out of the play. This is especially useful against overly aggressive defensive players.
As a changeup, the Ravens will mix in toss plays like this one, which is designed to look like a power run to the right (watch the pulling left guard and lead-blocking fullback) but get the ball to Collins on the outside on the left.
Of course, the Ravens mix in zone-blocking plays, too. On these runs, the offensive linemen (usually in unison) all step horizontally one direction, getting the defense to flow toward the sideline and get out of position in their gaps (the gaps that defenders are responsible for defending move so quickly it gets hard to keep track of their responsibilities). The running back’s job on these plays is to see where the defense is overpursuing and then cut upfield. Collins has the speed and vision to excel in these situations.
An effective ground attack seems to have provided the Ravens with a boost in the passing game, too, and Flacco has posted two straight efficient games under center. Of course, Flacco hasn’t often appeared to be a confident, aggressive downfield-passing quarterback this year, but the success the team’s had on the ground does not feel like a fluke. The offensive line is opening up holes. The scheme continues to confuse opposing defenses. And Collins is making would-be tacklers miss all over the field, averaging 3.14 yards after contact per rush (sixth) in the team’s past six games, per Pro Football Focus, with a league-high 28 missed tackles forced (tied with the Rams’ Todd Gurley) on 113 touches in that stretch.
As he did during the team’s Super Bowl run five years ago, Flacco’s going to have a chance to be a playoff hero if the Ravens get back into the postseason. But this year’s team may not need him to be that guy. With a dominant defense and a burgeoning run game, the Ravens have achieved the type of balance that eluded them early in the year. They’re still a flawed team—the passing game is inconsistent, to put it lightly—but in a weak AFC playoff field, if they can keep running the ball with so much success, they’re going to be a tough out come January.