Ravens Must Unleash Their Emmitt Smith vs. Bengals

Emmitt Smith

Getty The Ravens must unleash their own version of Emmitt Smith to beat the Bengals in the playoffs.

Throwing the football won’t help the Baltimore Ravens beat the Cincinnati Bengals on Super Wild Card Weekend. Not with quarterback Lamar Jackson officially ruled out of the playoff matchup at Paycor Stadium on Sunday, January 15.

Instead, the Ravens will need to win the way they always do, by running the ball. Fortunately, a Jackson-less offense has the perfect weapon for this gameplan, J.K. Dobbins, a running back compared to three Hall of Famers, including Emmitt Smith, a three-time Super Bowl winner with the Dallas Cowboys and the NFL’s all-time leading rusher.

Turning their own version of Smith loose, while combining his production with a strong defensive effort, is the Ravens’ only hope of springing an upset.

J.K. Dobbins Needs a Heavy Workload

The Ravens listed Jackson as “out” on the official injury report on Friday, January, 13, so Dobbins will be more important than usual in the playoffs:

A heavy dose of “old-school football” is the Ravens best way of approaching this game, according to Bryan DeArdo of CBS Sports. He’s called for the Ravens to unleash “workhorse” Dobbins, whom DeArdo calls “a bruising, battering back who draws comparisons to Larry Csonka, Franco Harris, John Riggins and Emmitt Smith.”

The comparisons to Csonka, Harris and Riggins are a bit of stretch, since all three were fullbacks and heavier than 212-pound Dobbins. Smith, who played at anywhere from 208 to 221 pounds is a more apt comparison.

Like 5’9″ Smith, 5’10” Dobbins runs with a low centre of gravity, keeps his shoulder pads square and doesn’t shy away from contact. His north-south style has yielded some big games this season, including Week 15’s 125-yard effort against the Cleveland Browns.

Dobbins ripped off several long gains in Cleveland, notably this 37-yarder:

His breakout day against the Browns wasn’t an outlier for the back who missed all of 2021 with a knee injury. Dobbins averaged 9.6 yards per carry in Cleveland one week after gashing the Pittsburgh Steelers for 120 yards and eight yards an attempt.

Repeating those efforts against a third-straight AFC North foe is the focus for Dobbins. It won’t be easy, but one prominent analyst knows how the Ravens and Dobbins can dominate on the ground in Cincinnati.

Ravens Told to “Go Big” vs. Bengals

Fortunately for the Ravens, Dobbins is up for the challenge of carrying the offense against one of football’s tougher defenses. He was rested in Week 18, when the Bengals beat the Ravens 27-16, so Dobbins is in peak condition for the postseason.

The 24-year-old told Clifton Brown of Ravens.com, “I want to carry the load. My teammates look at me and be like, ‘Alright, he’s ready. Let’s ride him.’ That’s how I always think since I was in Pee Wee football and I’m never going to change.”

Handing the ball to Dobbins at a high rate is only one part of the equation. The other part involves what personnel grouping he runs behind.

That grouping has to be 22 personnel, according to ESPN’s Matt Bowen: “The Ravens have to go big, expanding out of 22 personnel (2 RB, 2 TE, 1 WR). Run outside zone against the Bengals’ five-man fronts, or lean on gap concepts (GT power). In the two previous games against the Bengals this season, the Ravens rushed for 122 yards on 22 personnel runs.”

Overloading the line of scrimmage with extra tight ends is a sound strategy on two levels. First, All-Pro Mark Andrews and rookie Isaiah Likely are the Ravens’ best weapons in the passing game.

Second, and more important, extra blockers on the edges can help the Ravens double Bengals’ nose tackle D.J. Reader inside. One of the NFL’s true hidden gems, Reader is a load capable of disrupting any running game, the way he did on this play against the New England Patriots in Week 17, highlighted by CBS Sports’ Ben Fennell:

Ravens’ rookie center Tyler Linderbaum had some success against Reader in the season’s final week, but most of the time Reader is going to command a double team. Linderbaum did get some help, like on this play, broken down by Spencer N. Schultz of SB Nation’s Baltimore Beatdown, where left guard Ben Powers helped the first-year pivotman create a crease for Gus Edwards to exploit:

The other thing of note about this play was how the Ravens ran it out of 22 personnel. Schemes like these can help Edwards and the more explosive Dobbins wear out Reader and Co., while keeping Bengals’ quarterback Joe Burrow and wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase on the sidelines.