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The Ravens front office did its part to beef up the team’s running game this offseason, signing fullback Vonta Leach, re-signing guard Marshal Yanda and adding starting left tackle Bryant McKinnie.
The coaches did their part too.
They took a page from the team they’ll face Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium.
The Ravens studied several teams’ running games this offseason, but mostly zeroed in on Houston’s stretch zone running scheme.
After thinking about how that would work with their personnel, the Ravens decided to shift from their more ground-and-pound approach to a more mobile blocking style similar to Houston’s. Thus far, it has paid big dividends.
The Ravens are ninth in the NFL in rushing offense, averaging 123.8 yards per game. Last year, Baltimore ranked 25th in the NFL in average rushing yards per game (3.8). This season, they’re ninth (4.3).
“Imitation is the greatest form of flattery,” Head Coach John Harbaugh told Houston reporters this week. “We’ve imitated their running game to some extent.”
Ravens Offensive Coordinator Cam Cameron said the team has an annual process of looking around the league and seeing what’s working for other teams and what trends are developing.
There was no better team at running the ball last year than Houston, who turned previously unheard of running back Arian Foster into the league’s leading rusher with 1,616 yards. Houston averaged 4.8 yards per carry, the third-highest mark in the NFL.
“What’s not to like?” Cameron said. “We’ve got good runners, they’ve got good runners. Our tight ends are similar to their tight ends. You’ve just got to tie those things together.”
When the players returned from the bye, the coaches immediately told them of their plans to alter the scheme of the Ravens’ running game.
“Most of the guys were like, ‘Hell yeah, we’re on board!’” said Yanda, who is known for his mauling style.
“I love it. I love zone blocking; it’s my favorite way to block. I like power blocking too, but you’re not going to be able to do that every week. There are just too many good players. It’s fun to get them running.”
Here’s how stretch zone blocking is different:
Instead of coming straight off the ball to try to muscle an opponent out of the way, zone blocking has the offensive linemen moving more laterally off the snap. That means the defensive linemen and linebackers must also be on the move.
When defenders are moving sideways, they’re more susceptible to getting cut or simply closed off if they don’t get the edge. The objective is to spread the defense out to open one or multiple holes for the running back to burst through.
If the defense is too aggressive moving in one direction, it also creates the opportunity for a cutback that can often lead to a big gain. Rice, who has good vision for those lanes, has hit a couple for long runs already this season.
“It’s a good way to attack defenses running the ball like that,” Yanda said. “I mean look at Houston. Yeah, they’ve got a great back and a great line, but they’re consistently getting yards on good defenses too.”
Yanda said it hasn’t been a difficult transition for the Ravens because they already had some stretch zone running in the playbook last year but just didn’t use them very much. The addition of Leach, who ran the system in Houston for five years, also helped ease the change.
“He’s really helped us because he’s been so well coached by that coaching staff that he’s helped us with some of the nuances that have helped us clean some things up,” Harbaugh said. “Obviously, we don’t do it as well. We haven’t been at it as long.”
Sunday will be a good test. Which team will run the stretch zone scheme better?