Ravens finally unleash best playmaker against Miami

October 27, 2017 | Luke Jones

From the very first time he carried the ball for 16 yards against Cleveland in Week 2, Alex Collins rapidly began showing he was the best running back on the Ravens roster.

Using quick, choppy steps to cut — thanks in large part to Irish dance — and displaying physicality exceeding his 210-pound frame, Collins has run with urgency and anger from the moment he arrived in Owings Mills less than two months ago. And despite concerns about ball security and his ability to pass block, the Arkansas product was making it increasingly difficult for a struggling Ravens offense to keep him off the field as he averaged no worse than 4.6 yards per carry in any of his first five games.

He was finally unleashed Thursday night to the tune of 113 yards on 18 carries — both career highs — in the 40-0 demolition of the Miami Dolphins, who entered Week 8 sporting the NFL’s fifth-ranked run defense. Collins was responsible for five of the Ravens’ seven longest plays of the night that weren’t aided by a penalty, a continuing trend for an offense in need of more explosiveness. According to Pro Football Focus, nearly half of his yards came after first contact, showing off his impressive ability to collect yards even when the blocking isn’t there.

“He’s a vicious runner. That’s how I describe him,” center Ryan Jensen said. “He’s elusive, but he’ll hit it downhill and run some guys over and break tackles.”

Collins currently leads the NFL at 6.0 yards per carry and enters the weekend seventh in rushing yards (478) despite ranking only 23rd in attempts (80). His 10 runs of 15 or more yards are tied for the league lead with Kansas City’s rookie sensation Kareem Hunt, who’s had 44 more carries. Collins has been the optimal fit for Greg Roman’s new blocking schemes as the other Baltimore running backs have combined for only 20 more rushing yards on 59 more carries.

No one could have predicted such a breakout for Collins after he was waived by Seattle at the end of the preseason. Going unclaimed by the Ravens and 30 other NFL teams, the 2016 fifth-round pick from Arkansas was signed to the Baltimore practice squad days before the season opener. A week later when Danny Woodhead was placed on injured reserve, the Ravens even promoted practice-squad running back Jeremy Langford ahead of Collins before ultimately bringing up the latter to the 53-man roster two days later.

In other words, general manager Ozzie Newsome and head coach John Harbaugh didn’t exactly proceed as though they knew exactly what they had on their hands after the Seahawks decided to let Collins go at the end of an underwhelming summer. But in a season in which the offense has been nothing short of disastrous for significant stretches, Collins is quickly emerging as the closest thing to a playmaker for the Ravens.

Fumbles were a concern early as he coughed up the ball twice in his first 21 carries of the season, but he’s since had 61 touches without putting it on the ground, the product of a heavy emphasis on ball security with running backs coach Thomas Hammock during practices. His confidence in that department appears to be  growing along with the number of carries.

“I just give a lot of credit to the staff and the head coach and everybody for giving me that opportunity coming in and trusting and believing in me,” said Collins, who was awarded a game ball for the first 100-yard rushing performance of his career. “I had a few mishaps earlier in the season and just sticking with me. It’s a great feeling.

“I feel the family atmosphere. Everybody’s got your back, and I love it here.”

Making Collins’ performance more impressive is the fact that he’s received 82 touches on only 121 offensive snaps, meaning opposing defenses should be on alert by now to expect him to get the ball when he enters the game. That makes it all the more important for him to improve in pass protection and as a receiver out of the backfield to make the offense less predictable in the coming weeks. He made his first two receptions of the season for 30 yards to add to his impressive Thursday performance.

With quarterback Joe Flacco’s status for Week 9 up in the air and the passing game ranking last in the NFL, Collins is looking more and more like a key to the Ravens being able to make a meaningful playoff run in the second half of the season. Questions about how he’ll hold up are fair since many feature backs in the league exceed his listed weight by 15 or 20 pounds. As is the case with any player seemingly coming out of nowhere, the 23-year-old will need to sustain success, but he’s certainly come along at the opportune time for an offense desperately in need of a jolt.

He provided that and then some in a much-needed win for the Ravens over Miami.

“Just keep working and keep trying to improve,” Collins said. “This was the first 100-yard game, but I guarantee you I’ll go back and watch film [and see] there’s a few plays that I’m wishing I would have [done] something different. That’s definitely the main focus — celebrating the win, but moving forward quickly.”