Of course the Ravens wanted to run against the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC championship game.
They saw the same stats you saw. They watched the film. Leaning on the run game, one of the Ravens’ offensive strengths, against a defense that excels against the pass and not so much against the run was always a part of the plan.
“You want to run the ball against the Chiefs; there’s no doubt about it,” coach John Harbaugh said at his end-of-season press conference Friday. “And we did want to run the ball against the Chiefs. And then we weren’t able to get to it.”
The Ravens, who finished the regular season with the most rushing yards per game in the NFL, had just 16 carries against the Chiefs. Eight of them were by quarterback Lamar Jackson. The other eight were split between two running backs (a third was active but not used).
In a phone call with his coach four days after the loss, Jackson expressed similar sentiments to Harbaugh’s. They should have run more, himself included. He and his legs are a big part of how the Ravens keep defenses honest, Harbaugh said. It wasn’t close to Jackson’s worst running performance of the season, as it was for the run offense as a whole, but it wasn’t anywhere close to his best as he went up against a mediocre run defense.
“We talked about all these things,” Harbaugh said. “We hashed it all out. And Lamar is just a really good football mind, you know? And I’ll say that we’re both, like, lockstep. We were both already thinking the same way.”
At the conclusion of the regular season, the Ravens had 2,661 rushing yards. They were third in yards per carry (4.9), second in rushing touchdowns (26) and first in carries (541) — and they never rushed for fewer than 100 yards — until having only 81 in that 17-10 loss to the Chiefs.
Even in the first playoff game, the divisional-round matchup against the Houston Texans’ stout run defense that finished second in yards allowed per carry, the Ravens were not afraid to run. They rushed 42 times for 229 yards, their third-most rushing yards of the season, on their way to a 34-10 victory. Against the Miami Dolphins and Detroit Lions, two other defenses in the top five for yards allowed per carry, they rushed for 160 and 139 yards, respectively
And yet, when they played the Chiefs, with a run defense ranking in the bottom half of the league in total rushing yards allowed and yards allowed per carry, they balked at running. And Harbaugh is well aware it wasn’t a smart move.
“That’s not the number [of carries] you want to have, when it’s all said and done,” Harbaugh said. “You look back on it, that’s not really going to win us an AFC championship game for sure.”
If they knew it both before and after the game, then what happened?
Harbaugh said decisions were made on a play-by-play basis, depending on situation and what the Chiefs did with their defensive personnel. Yes, the Ravens would have liked to run more, but they weren’t going to force it within the flow of the game.
“You don’t think in that term, in those terms, during the game,” Harbaugh said. “You’re thinking play by play, series by series, what they’re doing to stop you and attack you. You’re not thinking, ‘Oh, gosh, I’m gonna have to answer for how many times you ran the ball.’ ”
Harbaugh said he understands how things happened from a “football perspective.”
He explained that the game plan was full of run-pass options, and they made their choices based on what the defense was doing at the line of scrimmage. And the defense was lined up to take away the run.
If the Ravens wanted to persist in the run game, they could have brought in heavy formations or pulled their wide receivers in tight and to use them as blockers.
But by their second drive the Ravens were down 7-0, and by their third drive they were trailing 14-7.
“We were down, so we wanted to keep the formations open and give ourselves the best chance to try and move the ball and score points,” Harbaugh said. Jackson expressed the same sentiment after the game, although he acknowledged they should have run more.
The Ravens then made mistakes on back-to-back drives with a fumble and execution errors. By the fifth possession, the Ravens were already in their two-minute offense, Harbaugh said, which doesn’t include many runs because they’re not time efficient.
Harbaugh realized at halftime what was going on and said during a TV interview during halftime that the Ravens would need to establish the run. But in the second half the Ravens rushed even less, and many of them were scrambles. Jackson, who ran for over 100 yards twice this season, seemed less intent on running, patiently sitting in the pocket, trying to find downfield options.
They were still down — the Chiefs scored before the half to go up 17-7 — but the defense tightened up and gave them multiple chances to win the game. And the Ravens should have, Harbaugh said, but they continued to make costly mistakes.
By the fourth quarter, they were down 10 and in a time crunch, requiring them to play almost the whole quarter as a two-minute drill. With execution errors, such as Zay Flowers’ fumble, Jackson’s interception and penalties, the Ravens wasted time and possessions. And, as the clock ran down, running seemed less and less like a good option.
“That’s not an excuse,” Harbaugh said. “You want to run the ball more. Sometimes you’ve got to be willing to get big and run the ball that way. We just didn’t want to do it that way in the game. And it cost us the opportunity to run the ball more.”
It may very well have cost them the game.