Though there is lots to like in the Baltimore Ravens backfield, there are also a ton of questions. Justin Forsett, the Raven’s leading rusher last year, is no lock to return. Bernard Pierce and Lorenzo Taliaferro are under contract, yet they are both extremely unproven. What is Marc Trestman to do? And how will his new offense inform the Ravens’ decisions?
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What will be fascinating about this season will be how Trestman melds his idea of what a running back is (Matt Forte) with what the Ravens want from one. It absolutely can be done. After all, good vision in the ZBS doesn’t preclude a running back from also being a good receiver. But it will make the Ravens more selective.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at how Trestman used his dream running back, Forte, and then find some players who fit the description in free agency and the draft.
How did the Bears use Forte?
Let’s start with the big one, the reason Forte excelled in the Bears’ attack: In two years, Matt Forte has had a ridiculous 176 catches. In 2014, Forte set a record with 102 receptions out of the backfield in a single season. By comparison, the Ravens’ single-season record for receptions from any player is 103 by Derrick Mason. Crazy.
Watching Forte’s film against the Carolina Panthers in Week 5, the reason for Forte’s gaudy reception total becomes readily apparent. Two reasons: Trestman’s offense uses the screen well, and quarterbacks look to get rid of the ball to the running back much quicker in Trestman’s quick-strike system.
Here’s a look at a screen the Bears ran. Jay Cutler lines up under center (uncommon for the Bears) in a formation that screams either run or play action.
From there, the Bears set up what looks to be a pretty typical play action pass, in which Forte would either block or run a traditional quick comeback to act as a safety valve for Cutler. He actually does end up running a comeback, which I’ve marked, but not without a little twist.
Maybe you can see that little twist coming from the picture above. Forte has to do a little acting here to get Charles Johnson to believe it’s a play action pass, not a screen. As you can see in the next pic, he sells it perfectly.
Forte has a pretty solid reputation as a blocker, but obviously he is not equipped to handle a guy like Charles Johnson. So Johnson is able to quickly get past Forte to pressure Cutler, or so he thinks. In reality, Forte had no intention of blocking Johnson. He just wants to make sure Johnson continues to rush Cutler rather than cover the screen. And as you can see, Forte playacting pass blocking is a lot prettier than most running backs actually pass blocking.
Now believing that Cutler is looking downfield, Johnson blows past Forte to try to pressure Cutler. Forte, meanwhile, finds an open space and awaits the ball. Cutler throws a nifty little pass to get past Johnson and into Forte’s hands. With Kyle Long (75) and Jordan Mills (67) as lead blockers, Forte has nothing but open space between him and the end zone. Touchdown.
This play encapsulates what the Bears looked for in a running back under Trestman: versatility. Had the Bears not established the run earlier, the Panthers would not have bit on the play action. If Forte couldn’t sell his fake blocking, Charles Johnson would have stayed back to cover the screen. And if Forte couldn’t catch the ball and get up field, the screen would have been useless. In one play, Trestman showed what the Ravens need from their running back.
With regards to simply using the running back as a safety-valve, which Trestman often does, that is a pretty simple proposition for the Ravens. As long as their running back can catch the football, which Justin Forsett and even Taliaferro most certainly can, they should be fine in that regard.
Which leads me to my next point: the running backs that actually fit the description of a Trestman back.
So let’s get into it.
Free Agency Options (note: I will only be examining FAs that won’t cost the Ravens compensatory picks)
He can catch, he can stonewall pass rushers, and he can break off big runs. Forsett is the total-package out of the backfield. The Ravens would probably be wise to not feature Forsett quite as heavily in the future, but he has all the skills necessary to succeed in Trestman’s offense. You’ve seen it all season. I don’t need to go into further detail on him.
Though not a strong runner, Reggie Bush is an incredible receiver out of the backfield. In fact, I’m stunned he has never actually been used as a wide receiver in his career. He isn’t a strong runner, but Bush could be a quality third-down back for Trestman. If Forsett moves on, Bush wouldn’t be a bad signing at the veteran’s minimum to at least guarantee some receiving production out of the backfield (as long as he’s healthy, which is no guarantee at all).
Like Bush, Steven Jackson is no longer a strong runner, albeit for completely different reasons. In Jackson’s case, he’s just not explosive anymore. But that doesn’t matter as much in the passing game. Jackson has always been a multi-dimensional threat with good hands and solid blocking skills. In 2006, Jackson caught 90 balls for 806 yards, showing his versatility. Though his role changed over the year, his skills through the air have not. So like Bush, Jackson could be a nice safety blanket if Forsett moves on. And obviously, that should not be a big money deal.
Best fits in the draft
A Miami prospect that has caught the eyes of Ravens’ fans, Duke Johnson is versatile and explosive. Good combo. His running prowess has never been in question. He can also pass block (though at this point he seems mostly limited to cut blocks, which he does well), and he looks like a weapon through the air. This play pretty well sums it up.
See how Johnson catches the ball cleanly, makes the first guy miss and picks up some yardage. Those would also be valuable skills in the return game too (wink, wink).
Jay Ajayi is probably the most established dual threat running back in this draft class, going for 535 yards through the air at Boise State last year. With 2,358 total yards of offense last year, Ajayi was a beast. The concerns are big, though: He tries to bounce too many runs outside, which won’t work in the NFL with his middling speed. A good ZBS running back is a decisive, one-cut runner, which is something Ajayi would need to learn how to be.
In sum, there are a ton of guys in the draft who would make sense. Melvin Gordon is among the best running back prospects in years thanks to his vision and burst, but he has done very little through the air. Todd Gurley is a multi-dimensional threat, but injury history and questions about vision are concerning. Tevin Coleman is a threat to go the distance every time he touches the ball. Mike Davis had 34 receptions last year, more than most of the top prospects. Javorious Allen had 41. David Johnson has established himself as a threat through the air. David Cobb was among the most productive and physical backs in this class, yet he is a projected Day 3 pick. The list of names goes on and on.
The Ravens will definitely pick one of these guys or another running back I didn’t mention. It is too deep of a draft class not to. Who it will be remains to be seen, but whoever it is will fit the Trestman and the ZBS mold. Scout accordingly.