Prior to Week 10, the Baltimore Ravens had just two games in which their defense allowed fewer than 100 yards rushing, and in the four previous games, gave up 116, 181, 227 and 214 rushing yards, respectively.
This type of ineptitude against the run was wholly out of character for a Ravens defense that built its name stopping rusher after rusher who dared to test it. Something needed to change, and quickly, for Baltimore to keep hold of its first-place standing in the AFC North as well as its chances to reach the playoffs for a fifth straight season.
Luckily for the Ravens, they played host to the three-win Oakland Raiders on Sunday, giving them an opportunity to experiment on defense and stop a run game that had been mostly anemic all season long. All told, Baltimore held Oakland to just 72 total yards on 24 runs—a three yards-per-carry average for a defense that, even after this game, was still giving up an average of 132 rushing yards per game and 3.9 yards per carry.
So how did they manage to keep the Raiders' run game in check? Let's break down the factors that went into this positive showing.
The Ravens already had an advantage before even taking the field on Sunday—beyond simply playing the game at home. The Raiders came into town without their top two running backs, with Darren McFadden and Mike Goodson both nursing high ankle sprains. That meant fullback Marcel Reece would be getting the majority of the Raiders' carries, with assistance from running backs Jeremy Stewart and Taiwan Jones.
Even before Goodson's and McFadden's injuries, the Raiders weren't getting much production out of their run game, having among the fewest rushing yards per game in the league. Oakland has had to rely on quarterback Carson Palmer and the passing game heavily this year—it is averaging more than 40 pass attempts per game as of this writing—and it seemed likely the same would be the case in Week 10 without their starters despite the Ravens struggling against the run most of the season.
Indeed, Palmer ultimately threw the ball 45 times on Sunday to 24 total Raiders runs. This was partially due to the fact that the Raiders found themselves in a significant points deficit, requiring them to turn away from running the ball in favor of the quicker, higher-yardage pass game. However, the Raiders did spend much of the first half within two scores of Baltimore, and yet the run game still produced few positive results.
In total, Reece had just 48 yards on his 13 carries—an average of 3.7 yards-per-carry—while Stewart averaged 3.1 yards, for 22 total on seven carries. Jones was a marginal contributor, running just twice for six yards. The Raiders simply could not put forth their A-game on Sunday without their two top backs—there is a reason, after all, while these three men sat behind McFadden and Goodson on the depth chart.
The fact that the Ravens came into the game with the advantage of not having to face the Raiders' best rushers gave them a better chance at stopping the run—Oakland's non-factor rushers had a very low chance of making an impact.
As Aaron Wilson of the Baltimore Sun examined in-depth on Sunday night, the Ravens needed to be a bit more creative than usual on defense. It wasn't simply to find a workable formula to increase their success against opponents' run game—it was also to address a few very immediate problems.
Defensive tackle Haloti Ngata has been dealing with shoulder and knee issues for weeks and though he dressed for the Oakland game, the hope was that the Ravens would not need him. Indeed, Ngata played zero snaps on Sunday, replaced by seventh-round rookie DeAngelo Tyson.
Tyson wasn't just fed to the proverbial wolves and asked to fend for himself in his first-ever NFL starting role. Ravens defensive coordinator Dean Pees bolstered his game plans with creative moves like shifting rookie linebacker Courtney Upshaw to defensive tackle at times, using extra linebackers and putting in what Wilson describes as the "dollar" package—two defensive linemen, three linebackers and six defensive backs. Pees matched the Raiders' speed with speedy defenders of his own, sometimes pulling nose tackles Ma'ake Kemoeatu and Terrence Cody to put in faster, lighter players.
Ultimately, only Cody graded out significantly positive, according to Pro Football Focus, but for once, no Ravens defender had a bad game against the run. The longest Raiders carry went for nine yards and the run defense notched only one missed tackle on the day—a major improvement.
Clearly, what the Ravens had been doing on defense in their attempts to stop the run had not been working. Putting forth a more unpredictable group of defenders on the field, especially in running situations, and rotating linebackers situationally is a smart way to help minimize their issues with both talent and depth. With no one man in the Ravens front seven truly capable of doing it all right now, it's important to identify who can help where and when—even if it means pulling players out of their "natural" positions, like what Pees did with Upshaw.
The result was a far better showing against the run, something the Ravens will need to continue to tweak and improve with heavy-running teams like the Pittsburgh Steelers and Washington Redskins in their future.