On their first play from scrimmage in Sunday’s AFC championship game, the Ravens ran the ball, because why wouldn’t the NFL’s best ground game test one of the league’s worst run defenses from the jump?
On third-and-short and then fourth-and-short later in the first quarter, the Ravens ran the ball again and again, because why wouldn’t they probe a Chiefs front missing a starting defensive tackle and a starting linebacker?
On their first (and only) touchdown drive of the game, the Ravens ran the ball again and again, running back Gus Edwards’ 15-yard dash following quarterback Lamar Jackson’s 21-yard designed run, because why stop a good thing?
Why, indeed. Over four pass-happy quarters Sunday, the Ravens’ 17-10 loss became as much an indictment of Jackson’s postseason chops as it did coordinator Todd Monken’s play-calling tendencies.
One week after watching the Buffalo Bills run over the Chiefs (39 carries for 182 yards and two touchdowns) in the divisional round, the Ravens treated their running game as if it were a fine wine, something to be indulged in for a moment here, a moment there, maybe tucked away for a Super Bowl trip in two weeks’ time. According to TruMedia, they finished with 52 yards on 11 designed runs, by far their fewest carries in any game Jackson has started over his career.
“It was that kind of a game, I’d say,” coach John Harbaugh said when asked about the Ravens’ 16 carries, five of which were scrambles by Jackson. “That’s the way it worked out, the way the game went.”
The Ravens spent most of Sunday playing catch-up. They never led and trailed for over 43 minutes. Until a late field goal by kicker Justin Tucker, they’d spent the entire second half trying to cut into a 10-point deficit.
And the Ravens did so, fruitlessly, by testing the Chiefs’ strength, not their weakness. Kansas City finished the regular season with the NFL’s No. 5 pass defense, according to FTN’s efficiency metrics, and No. 27 run defense. Yet the Ravens had three designed runs after halftime. Running backs Edwards and Justice Hill, one week after running roughshod over a stout Houston Texans front, combined for six carries total.
“Obviously, [the Chiefs] game-planned like we game-planned,” right tackle Morgan Moses said. “We block [for] what’s called. At the end of the day, we just fell short of some things today. That’s what it is. Hats off to them.”
The pass-heavy tendencies weren’t just out of character for the Ravens, who led the league in rushing yards this season. They were anomalous in the wider scope of a pass-heavy league. According to TruMedia, the Ravens’ designed-run rate (17.5%) was the third lowest of any game in franchise history since 2000 and the sixth lowest of the 568 regular-season and playoff games played this season.
Asked afterward whether he felt the Ravens had opportunities to run the ball more, Jackson shrugged his shoulders, raised his palms as if he were weighing the scales of the offense, then gave an uncertain sigh.
“We could have ran the ball,” he said. “We were just down, and we just tried to put points on the board, tried to get the ball down the field, and we’ve just got to make something happen.”