The graph above shows the weekly Rush DVOA for the 2011 and 2010 incarnations of the Baltimore Ravens. Rush DVOA is a percentage, so a team with a Rush DVOA of 10.0% is 10 percent better at running the ball than the average team. Its also important to note that Rush DVOA measures not just rushing yardage, but the importance of the rushing yardage. For example, five yards on third-and-4 are worth more than five yards on first-and-10 and much more than five yards on third-and-12. Rush DVOA is also adjusted for the quality of the opponent, so a run against the 49ers is worth more than a run against the Browns. The data for the graph and the statistics in this post are all courtesy of Football Outsiders. The photos in the body of the post are courtesy of the linked websites.
An indepth look at all the contributors to the Ravens running game in 2011 follows after the jump.
The Ravens had experienced a down year rushing the ball in 2010. They finished with a Rush DVOA barely above average (0.8 %) which was good enough to register 13th out of 32 teams in the NFL. This year the run game bounced back for Baltimore. The team improved to a Rush DVOA of 8.0% and finished inside the top 10 in the NFL. The biggest reason for the resurgence of the running game in Baltimore in 2011 was the return of Ray Rice’s elusiveness in the open field. Presumably Rice’s refound athleticism is due to a clean bill of health. Recall, in 2010 Rice injured his knee in the first half of the season and despite returning after a few weeks he never resembled his vintage 2009 form. After finishing a putrid 27th in the league in open field rushing yards in 2010, Rice led the Ravens running backs to 5th best open field rushing numbers in 2011.
The offensive line also rebounded from a down year in 2010. After dropping from the 4th best run blocking unit in 2009 to the 9th best in 2010, the big uglies checked in as the 6th best unit in the NFL in 2011. This rebound was primarily due to players being able to play in their natural positions. The signing of left tackle Bryant McKinnie enabled Michael Oher to return to right tackle and Marshal Yanda, who is undersized at right tackle but a manchild at right guard, to return to guard. The importance of the signing of McKinnie, who was waived by the Vikings in training camp, cannot be overstated. Left tackle is the second most important position on the field and it is extremely rare to find compotent left tackles on the scrap heap mere weeks before the season begins. Given the domino effect his presence had a case could be made for McKinnie as the most valuable member of the Ravens rushing attack in the 2011 season.
However, fullback Vonta Leach may deserve the most credit for the Ravens rushing success in 2011. Prior to 2011 Leach was considered the best blocking fullback in the league and he did nothing to take away from his case this season. The addition of Leach drastically improved the Ravens performance in critical short yardage situations. In 2010, without Leach the Ravens converted 56.4% of runs on third or fourth down with two yards or less to go. This season that number rose to 63.0%.
Ultimately, it was a nice season for the 2011 Ravens running game. They improved in almost every advanced statistical category. The improvements were needed as the fabled Ravens rushing attack had become almost pedestrian in 2010. Barring injuries, the running game should continue to improve in 2012. Michael Oher is still on his rookie contracts, McKinnie has one more year left of the deal he signed at the beginning of this year and Marhsal Yanda inked a new 5-year deal in August of 2011. Along with the possible development of rookie Jah Reid this group appears poised to continue to lead the Ravens offense for at least one more year.