Coming into Sunday’s game against the Seattle Seahawks, running back Keaton Mitchell was expected to rush for 5 yards, according to Next Gen Stats. It took him one carry to blow that number out of the water.
Mitchell wasn’t handed the ball until halfway through the second quarter, but as soon as he had it in his hands, he seized the opportunity. He carried that first handoff for 11 yards, more than double his expected rushing yards.
One play later, quarterback Lamar Jackson looked to Mitchell again. Mitchell rushed for 9 yards, quadrupling his expected rushing yards, and then he followed with another 9 on the next play.
“Man, I love it,” starting running back Gus Edwards said. “I love it. He’s a guy that’s been working hard every day since he’s been here, undrafted, free agent, kind of went under the radar.”
Mitchell is under the radar no more. By the end of the day, he had racked up 138 rushing yards, by far the best in the game. Jackson had the next-most rushing yards (60) and still had less than half of what Mitchell gained.
Mitchell didn’t need much to work with. He carried only nine times. His 15.3 yards per carry dwarfed Edwards’ more than respectable 10.4 yards per carry, which was the next-best average across both teams.
Although one rush went for negative yardage and one was for no gain, the rest of Mitchell’s runs went for 5 yards or more. His average was driven up by two explosive plays, a 60-yard run and a 40-yard touchdown.
The defense predicted that third-quarter touchdown, according to linebacker Patrick Queen, who said he knows firsthand how hard it can be to catch Mitchell after struggling to do so in training camp.
“It’s crazy because, right before his touchdown, we were sitting there like, ‘This one guy keeps stopping him. If that one guy don’t get there, he gone,’” Queen said. “And then, the next play, he’s out of there.”
As it became clear he was going to make it into the end zone — for the first time in his NFL career — Mitchell said he started thinking about how he was going to celebrate. He “just did a little something,” which turned out to be a little waddle, followed by rolling it with his arms. Meanwhile, his teammates on the field and the sidelines set off on a frenzy of high-fives and cheering.
Even once the special teams took the field to kick and then the defense headed out, the celebration continued. Edwards said everyone was going crazy because the team had seen his potential in camp, followed by his hard work to get back after injury, and the players were excited to see it come to fruition.
“It was good to see Keaton’s coming-out game,” guard Kevin Zeitler said. “We knew what he could do, but that just adds to the good running backs we already have. To have him added to the mix makes it really hard for defenses to prepare for us.”
Mitchell finished +108 rushing yards over expected, the most over expected since Ronald Jones was +110 when he rushed for 192 yards for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers against the Carolina Panthers in 2020. Jones was a second-round pick in 2018 and was in his third season at that point. Mitchell was an undrafted free agent and is a rookie playing his third game.
Mitchell’s breakout performance came one week after coach John Harbaugh stated his confidence in the running backs room amid rumors that the Ravens were looking to bolster the position at the trade deadline.
“We’re confident in Gus,” Harbaugh said after beating the Arizona Cardinals in Week 8. “We’re confident in Justice [Hill]. Obviously, we want to get our guy back Keaton and get healthy with that. And Melvin Gordon – he’s sitting there on our practice squad, and we think the world of him, too. We’re going to try and find a way to get him involved. Yes, we like our running backs a lot.”
It also came days after offensive coordinator Todd Monken stated his belief that it’s important to spread the workload among multiple running backs to preserve their longevity. Beyond taking some of the load, Mitchell will add another dynamic to the run game, offensive lineman Ronnie Stanley said.
“The versatility back there is amazing. To be able to run power ball games with Gus and Justice and then you’ve got the speed of Keaton, we can really hit different gaps, all angles,” Stanley said.
Speed was the name of the game, and it might have surprised the Seahawks — Mitchell had played only two offensive snaps prior to Sunday, giving them little film to prepare for him — but it certainly didn’t surprise his teammates. As safety Geno Stone put it: “That boy got speed.”
His size can also be challenging. While measuring in at 5-foot-8 and 191 pounds sounds like a disadvantage, it can work in Mitchell’s favor because it makes it hard for the defense to track him behind the offensive line, Queen said. And the offensive line was blocking well for him, giving him time to make his reads and work his magic once he broke past the line.
But Mitchell’s ability to break tackles was something new even to his teammates, Stone said. Through camp and preseason, the defense never got a taste of that particular skill, and it was “crazy” to see him do it against guys Stone said are known for their tackling abilities.
Through the game and the postgame celebrations, Mitchell absorbed the love and support of his teammates, but he’s not letting it get to his head. His father, Anthony Mitchell, a former undrafted rookie who played for the Ravens, always preached humility.
Anthony was not at the game, although he was certainly watching. He plans to attend either a game around Thanksgiving or the one on Christmas. Mitchell is determined to keep working at his craft so he can put on a show with his dad in the house.
“[My dad said] just stay humble, keep doing what you do, keep thanking God, and your time will come,” Mitchell said. “Today, it came, so [I’ll] just keep going. ... It’s many more games like this to come.”