Ravens training camp preview: How the Ravens can maximize their backfield touches

Andrew Gillis
NBC Sports Washington

Rostered running backs/fullbacks: Mark Ingram, J.K. Dobbins, Gus Edwards, Justice Hill, Patrick Ricard, Bronson Rechsteiner

Last season, the Ravens were one of the most efficient offensive teams in the NFL. The trick, however, was that they did a majority of their work with their backfield. 

The Ravens rushed for a league-record 3,296 yards as a team on 596 carries, good for the most yards ever gained on the ground by an offense. They ran for 206 yards-per-game on 5.5 yards per carry, all the best figures in the NFL by a wide margin. 

But what made the Ravens' offense unique was not just that they ran the ball well, but how it made the offense tick. 

According to Pro Football Reference, the Ravens' earned 100.56 expected points contributed by the ground game - a figure used to estimate the expected point value of a run play based on yardage gained, down, distance and field position. The next best team in the NFL was the Cowboys with 37.08 expected points. Compare that to the passing attack, where the Ravens' 100.56 figure would've placed them 13th in the NFL - in the passing category. 

Essentially, the Ravens ran the ball as well and as efficiently as a slightly above average passing attack in the NFL. And as mounds and mounds of data continue to suggest passing the football is far more conducive to success than the outdated and antiquated rushing styles of ground and pound football, the Ravens turned the league on its head with a deep and talented host of backfield standouts. 

Naturally, the Ravens added to that crop and drafted Ohio State phenom J.K. Dobbins with the 55th pick in the 2020 NFL Draft to pair with Mark Ingram, Gus Edwards and Justice Hill. 

The question now, however, is who gets the touches, when they do so and how they do. 

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Ingram, the team's workhorse last season, had 202 rush attempts and ran for five yards-per-carry. Edwards spelled Ingram and ran the ball 133 times. Hill saw the field the least out of the three and had just 58 carries in 16 games. Both Edwards and Ingram earned five yards or more per carry.

Patrick Ricard, the team's fullback and defensive lineman who made his first Pro Bowl in 2019, didn't record a carry and only was targeted 11 times in the passing game. Essentially, Ricard was there to plow the way for the league's best backfield. But while his value to the team last year wasn't necessarily prevalent, it shouldn't go understated. 

The backfield wouldn't have been what it was, though, without the absurdity of Lamar Jackson's MVP season. Jackson rushed for a quarterback record 1,206 yards on 176 carries last season. His ability to freeze linebackers and edge rushers allowed the Ravens' running backs to have wide-open lanes all season long and created mismatches few defensive teams are equipped to handle.

Now, with Jackson envisioning himself running less than he did a year ago, a greater emphasis will be placed on the running backs to handle a bigger load both on the ground and catching passes out of the backfield. 

While Ingram was highly efficient catching passes last season (he had 26 receptions and five touchdowns), none of the team's backs - including Dobbins at Ohio State - were true pass-catching threats. Unless one of them takes a step forward in that regard, the snaps at the running back position could vary week-to-week, dependent upon matchups and scheme. 

Of course, the Ravens have a decision to make as to how many running backs they'd like to keep. Last year, they had three on the roster for the duration of the season. This year, they might not have that luxury. 

Baltimore could make up the roster spot it had last season by only carrying two quarterbacks instead of three, or it could look to trade Edwards or Hill in training camp should an injury occur elsewhere in the league. The trade compensation, however, likely wouldn't net the team much in return and the two backs could be more valuable on the roster than not.

If the Ravens keep all four, they'll have to find out what works best for the offense: Feeding a one-two punch backfield, or a running back by committee system.

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Last year, Ingram averaged 13.5 carries, Jackson averaged 11.7 and Edwards averaged 8.3. As a team, they averaged 37.3 per game. 

Should the Ravens decide to operate like they did last season with that trio, or any trio, earning 89.8 percent of the team's carries, how hard Dobbins' transition is to the NFL could determine whether or not he supplants Edwards, Ingram or even Jackson in the gameplan each week. But it's important to note his selection at 55th overall - the Ravens didn't draft him to sit on the bench. In any scenario, Dobbins should be included in the conversation.

And as the season wears on, it's possible Dobbins and Edwards slowly handle more of the reps to keep Ingram, now 30-years-old, fresh for a late-season push. With 1,777 NFL touches under his belt, Ingram is on the wrong side of the age curve - especially for running backs.

That conversation still leaves out Hill, who in a limited role last season, showed flashes of why the Ravens drafted him in the fourth round of the 2019 draft with his speed and acceleration. If the Ravens want to get as much speed on the field as possible, Hill is likely the answer. 

All of that is to say the Ravens have options as to how they'd like to attack the ground game. While they've expressed a desire to throw more in 2020, they're certainly not going to abandon the run game altogether. With the talented host of running backs the team has, it's one of the highest floor positions on the roster.

And compared to the rest of the league, their talented rushing attack is far more than simply average.

Of the 32 teams in the NFL last season, 22 of them had negative expected points contributed by the run game. The league average was -11.1 points and the last-place team, the Steelers, posted a number 165 points behind the Ravens: -64.88.

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Ravens training camp preview: How the Ravens can maximize their backfield touches originally appeared on NBC Sports Washington

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