Why don’t the Baltimore Ravens run the ball more?

I hear this question – often phrased as a complaint – from other Ravens fans on a regular basis. This year the answer is simple – they aren’t very good at it.

Through three weeks the Ravens have run 88 rushing plays – 11th in the NFL (so they are running more than the NFL average). They are averaging 2.6 yards per rush (among the three worst teams in the NFL in yards per rush). Their rushing problems appear tied to an offensive line that just doesn’t create a lot of productive runs – according to Football Outsiders Adjust Line Yards metric, the Ravens have the 5th worst rushing offensive line in the NFL.

Do the Ravens need to run more? And what do my fellow fans mean by this – do the believe that the Ravens need to establish the ability to rush the ball early in the game? Or are they responding to a vague perception that when the Ravens rush more often they tend to win?

This perception is definitely true, but as we know the purported causality is reversed. Teams that are winning run the ball a lot late in the game, in order to run the clock, rest their defense, and keep the ball out the hands of the opposing offense.

If we look at Pro Football Reference’s Game Play Index, winning teams in the fourth quarter through three weeks of this season have called 465 rushing plays. Not surprisingly, losing teams this year rushed less than half as much in the fourth quarter (213 times so far this year)…ostensibly because they were losing and had to throw the ball to catch up. So rushing the ball a lot, especially late, is correlated with winning – but here we find just more evidence for the fairly well established notion that winning causes running, not the other way around.

How about establishing the running game EARLY – does that help? Again using the Football Outsiders Game Play Finder, if we look at the last few seasons (2011, 2012 and 2013) – winning teams ran 3,881 running plays in the first quarter, and losing teams ran 3,613 running plays in the first quarter, over the course of 560 games. That means winning teams ran an average of .47 more running plays per first quarter than losing teams – talk about establishing the run early!

But even that is misleading. We expect that, on average, teams that eventually win the game ran more plays of all types early (because they were having offensive success), and that turns out to be the case – since 2011, teams that went on to win the game ran 8,475 plays from scrimmage in the first quarter, while teams that eventually lost ran 7,779. So winning teams rushed on 46% of their plays from scrimmage in the first quarter. Losing teams rushed on 47% of their plays from scrimmage in the first quarter.

Since 2011, winning NFL teams have rushed just a little less frequently in the first quarter than losing teams.

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