Edwards, Ravens’ historic ground game still aiming for “step forward” in 2020

June 17, 2020 | Luke Jones

The revolutionary Ravens offense rushed for an NFL-record 3,296 yards on the way to a 14-2 record last season.

Quarterback Lamar Jackson (1,206) and running backs Mark Ingram (1,018) and Gus Edwards (711) each ran for more than 700 yards. In contrast, seven NFL teams didn’t have a single 700-yard rusher in 2019.

Now adding the second-round selection of Ohio State star running back J.K. Dobbins to the mix, could the Baltimore ground game improve in 2020?

“It’s going to be difficult to do better than what we did last year with breaking the rushing record, but I think it’s a step forward,” Edwards said in a Wednesday conference call. “It’s a definite step towards that because he’s a great back and all. He’s going to make the competition that much better in the running back room.”

Consider the Ravens ran for nearly 1,000 more yards than second-place San Francisco and over 2,000 more yards than the New York Jets and Miami in 2019. Only one other team — the Michael Vick-led 2006 Atlanta Falcons — has sniffed 3,000 rushing yards in the 21st century and just 12 other teams have even eclipsed the 2,500-yard mark in a season since the beginning of the John Harbaugh era in 2008.

In other words, improving upon — or even matching — those raw numbers and efficiency will be a very tall order, especially in a sport where the passing game has been proven as the more efficient way to move the ball and score points in the long run. The record-setting pace was certainly aided by the Ravens rarely trailing last season, allowing them to lean even more heavily on the run in the second half of games. One can’t assume those multi-score leads will come quite as easily in the new season as we saw what happened when Baltimore fell behind multiple scores in the playoff loss to Tennessee.

There’s also the question about the number of carries to go around.

Even without Dobbins in the picture last season, Edwards and his shiny 5.3 yards per attempt average received just 133 carries — many in short-yardage situations — behind Ingram and Jackson in the pecking order while 2019 fourth-round pick Justice Hill only saw 58. Offensive coordinator Greg Roman’s long-held stance that you can never have too many running backs could be put to the test, especially if the Ravens have designs of Jackson and the offense taking another step forward through the air.

“Coach Roman is just committed to it. It seems like coach Harbaugh is committed to it,” said Edwards about the competition for carries. “Everybody is just throwing around a ‘four-headed monster.’ I think everybody is committed to it and really wants to do it. That’s the first step and we’ll see where it goes. I’m excited.

“It’s a chance to make history.”

It’s a great problem to have on paper, of course, but reality could prove more challenging.

Cutting down on the number of times Jackson carries the ball may make sense in the big picture, but arbitrarily redistributing some of his attempts to running backs is highly unlikely to produce the same NFL-best 6.9 yards per carry the league MVP averaged a year ago. Dobbins is an intriguing talent, but his addition doesn’t change the reality of Jackson being the transcendent force in this running game or the simple math of there being only one football.

There’s also the business side with many viewing Dobbins as the running back of the future and a signal that the 30-year-old Ingram could be a salary cap casualty next winter despite his 1,000-yard season that resulted in a trip to the Pro Bowl last year. That’s not to suggest Ingram or any other Ravens back will be anything but a team player, but the earning potential at the position is as tenuous as ever, making touches and statistics that much more important.

Entering his third season, Edwards will be a restricted free agent next year and is certainly aiming to continue making his mark after exploding on the scene as an undrafted free agent from Rutgers in the second half of 2018.

“I think that’s how I want myself to be remembered as somebody that works hard,” said Edwards, who’s averaged an impressive 5.3 yards per carry in his brief career. “That’s what the team thinks of me. I’m going to be in a great position with a great team, a team that wants to run the ball. Everything is in front of me. I just have [to take] another step forward.”

The ground game is certainly deeper and should easily remain the NFL’s best by a significant margin, but making history once again could prove difficult in more ways than one.