Anytime you hear a preview of the Ravens 2009 season, people state that there is no doubt the Ravens running game will be great this season. Maybe I am just being pessimistic, but if you take a deeper look at the stats and who is running the ball, you will see that the Ravens having success in the run game is anything but a sure thing. I am not saying they won’t have success but I have a little concern about the people carrying the rock.
Last season Le’Ron McClain came out of nowhere to lead the team in rushing with 920 yards and 10 touchdowns. McClain, who was a converted fullback, will now be forced to move back to his primary position thanks to the loss of Lorenzo Neal. Rumors are floating around that McClain has added some weight and not of the muscular variety. While McClain will still get a decent amount of carries, he will not handle the ball as much as he did last season. As the team’s new primary fullback, will he be able to open up holes for Ray Rice and Willis McGahee as effectively as Neal did last year? I doubt it. He has not come out and said anything publicly but it could be assumed that McClain is not happy with what he might view as a limited roll in the offense. McClain is likely to be the 3rd option after McGahee and Rice and I am not sure if that is best for this offense.
Despite receiving limited action last year, Ray Rice impressed everyone with his explosiveness and big play ability. Rice is going to play a more significant role in the offense and is penciled in as the number two back behind McGahee. With McClain moving to fullback Rice is sure to get more then the 107 carries he got last season, but can he handle this role? Rice was an absolute workhorse during his four years at Rutgers, carrying the ball 910 times for 4,926 yards. In his senior year Rice carried the ball a whopping 380 times for 2,012 yards and 24 touchdowns and cemented himself as one of the best backs in college football.
My concern with Rice getting 200+ carries is that at 5’8” tall and 210 pounds his frame is not conducive to taking a lot of abuse at the NFL level. Rice was able to run by most defenders in college, but in the NFL he likely will not be as able to avoid contact and will have to absorb massive blows from some physically imposing linebackers. He is the back with the most shiftiness and big play ability but his size is an honest concern. He will need to model his game after players like Brian Westbrook and Warrick Dunn if he is to have long-term success. I think Rice has the heart and desire to make up for his lack of size but until he proves he can handle the wear and tear of carrying the ball 200+ times, I am going to be a little skeptical.
When healthy, Willis McGahee is the best back on the Ravens and one of the best in the NFL. Last season though, McGahee was riddled with injury, culminating with a knock-out shot in the AFC Championship after a helmet to helmet hit. If Willis worked hard to rehab his injuries and get himself into shape then he could revert back to his 1000+ yard form; however, if he didn’t, then the Ravens offense is in trouble. One of the knocks on McGahee throughout his career has been his work ethic and desire in the off-season. This was evident when he came into camp out-of-shape last season, leading to the Ravens ultimately successful experiment with LeRon McClain at running back.
In his first four season McGahee carried the ball over 250 times, rushing for over 1200 yards twice, including in his first season with the Ravens. While his yardage is impressive, McGahee has only averaged less then 4 yards per carry for his entire career. This means that for him to eclipse the 1000 yard mark, he will need to get the ball over 250 times for the season, an average of 15.6 carries per game. Normally this would not be a problem for him, but given the injuries sustained last year, it is unlikely his body will hold up for the duration of the season.
If McGahee’s body can’t handle 250 carries action will trickle down throughout the Ravens offense. Ray Rice will have to carry the ball 150 times or more and LeRon McClain will have to get his share of touches, leading to the Ravens having to start rookie Jamel Cook at fullback whenever they run an I-formation with McClain as the tailback.
The Ravens will be a run first team in 2009 and Cam Cameron will likely find a way to get all three backs involved and use multiple formations to do so. In 2008 the Ravens had the most rushing attempts in the NFL with 592 and ranked 4th in rushing yards per game at 148.5 yards. This happened despite injuries among the offensive line and with injuries to both Willis McGahee and Ray Rice.
While I do believe the offensive line played a significant role, the main key to the Ravens rushing success was Lorenzo Neal. There is no telling the impact the loss of Neal will have on the offense; but it could be a major one. The success of the Ravens offense will definitely rely upon replacing the output of the player widely regarded as the best blocking fullback in the NFL during the last decade or two.
Last year’s improbable 11-5 season shows that in the NFL you can’t make any assumptions, so we can’t just assume the Ravens running game is going to produce like it did last season. Ultimately the running game should be good, but a deeper look at the stats and the personnel running the ball should concern more fans than just me.
Hopefully, when I am wearing my purple number 27 jersey, I will be watching McClain, McGahee and Rice prove me wrong. But for now, I am going to be slightly pessimistic.