Despite posting their best record since 2006, the Ravens did not experience across the board improvement in 2010. The defense declined slightly while the pass offense and special teams improved slightly. However, the usually formidable running game degraded drastically, falling from 4.7 yards per carry (fourth in the NFL in 2009) to 3.9 yards per carry (25th in the NFL in 2010). The ineffectiveness came to a head in the Ravens playoff game against the Pittsburgh Steelers where Ray Rice and Willis McGahee combined for just 36 yards on 16 carries. This week in By the Numbers we’ll discern who was to blame for this precipitous decline.
Improving the running game is essential for the Ravens. Obviously, by running effectively the Ravens keep the chains moving and strong runs on first down lead to advantageous second-and-short situations. However, running effectively is also important because of the Ravens extensive use of play-action passing. In 2010, the Ravens used play-action passing at a historically high rate (31% of plays). Since Football Outsiders started charting data in 2005, this is the highest recorded rate. While there exists some debate about the correlation between the effectiveness of the running game and play-action passes, improving run efficiency certainly does not prohibit play action passing improvements and play-action passing improvements are needed. Despite running play-action passes at a ridiculous rate, the team was not effective. The NFL average was 7.5 yards per pass with play-action and 6.1 yards per pass otherwise. Baltimore had 6.5 yards per pass both with and without play-action meaning they were above average without it and below average with it.
One theory about the decline of the running game is it resulted simply from a lack of practice and preseason repetitions. Recall, entering 2010 the Ravens had acquired two new receivers: Anquan Boldin and T.J. Houshmandzadeh. During the preseason games the Ravens concentrated on getting these receivers involved in passing plays and ignored the run. In the third preseason game, often referred to as dress rehearsal, the Ravens ran whole drives with nothing but passes. After the game Flacco said, “I think the plan coming out was to throw the ball, throw the ball and throw the ball some more“. The 2010 preseason reflected this overall philosophy with the first team offense having 73 passing plays and only 21 running plays. This year the Ravens have shown a renewed commitment to the running game. Assuming the first-team offense does not play in the final preseason game they’ll end the 2011 preseason with 57 passing plays and 35 running plays, a very similar ratio to the 2009 preseason (65 passing plays and 36 running plays).
Outside of the lack of practice, the usual suspects for the decline of the running game are the blocking (offensive line) and the running back (Ray Rice). As all Ravens fans know, the offensive line was unstable last year. Several injuries (Gaither, Oher) resulted in players playing out of position (Yanda, Oher) and second tier players starting (Chester). However, despite the injuries and patchwork positioning, the Ravens offensive line only declined to ninth in Football Outsiders’ Adjusted Line Yards, after finishing fourth in 2009. Adjusted Line Yards separates the effect of the offensive line on a running play from the running back, blocking wide receivers and the opposing defense. The result is a statistic that measures offensive line effectiveness on running plays. In contrast, the running backs on the team dropped from third in Open Field Yards per carry in 2009 to 27th in 2010. Open Field Yards account for the number of yards per carry that come 11 or more yards past the line of scrimmage. These are the situations where the running back has the most control over the amount of the gain, not the offensive line. Clearly, this decline suggests a lack of explosiveness from Ray Rice in the open field. Further damning Rice is his steep decline in broken tackles in 2010. In 2009, Rice was a nightmare for defenders to pin down resulting in 57 broken tackles but in 2010 he barely eclipsed a third of that number, netting only 22 broken tackles. Ardent Rice supporters (including myself) will point to Rice’s knee injury in the first half of the season as the primary reason for his decline. While this could explain part of Rice’s precipitous fall its important to note that he wasn’t performing any better in the second half of the season. Rice averaged 3.99 yards per carry before Baltimore’s bye week (Week 8), and an even worse 3.96 yards per carry after the bye.
Looking further it does not appear that the Ravens play-calling is to blame for Rice’s decline. Recently, Chris Berney showed that Rice ran to the middle of the field (behind an offensive guard), where long runs occur less frequently, 60 percent of the time. While LeSean McCoy, a similar back, rushed to the middle behind an offensive guard 58 percent of the time. By season’s end McCoy had netted an extraordinarily efficient 5.2 yards per carry while Rice posted a below average 3.9 yards per carry.
Rice’s performance in 2010 does not necessarily spell doom and gloom for the Ravens running game in 2011. It would be unlikely that a young running back, who has not sustained a catastrophic injury, lost his explosiveness after such a small number of NFL carries. I believe Rice’s knee was bothering him throughout most of the 2010 season and the injury healed during the offseason. Furthermore, it is encouraging that the patchwork offensive line was so effective at run blocking last year. Hopefully, the addition of Bryant McKinnie, the move of Michael Oher to right tackle and the move of Marshall Yanda to right guard along with a healthy Rice will restore the Ravens running game to prominence in 2011.