Struggling Ravens' offense can gain big spark from 'little ball of muscle'

OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- Joe Flacco was asked if there is anybody more excited than him about the return of running back Danny Woodhead.

"Probably Danny," Flacco said with a smile.

Actually, the Baltimore Ravens and fantasy football owners alike should be psyched about the comeback of a player whom Pro Bowl guard Marshal Yanda once referred to as "a little ball of muscle."

While John Harbaugh won't say whether Woodhead will be activated off injured reserve this week -- "it’s kind of hard to predict," the coach said -- the expectation is Baltimore will get back a difference-maker for this Sunday's game in Green Bay if he doesn't have a setback in practice this week.

Woodhead, who's been sidelined since the season opener with a hamstring injury, will be heavily involved in Baltimore's passing game and can solve one of the biggest problems for a stagnant offense. He can extend drives by turning short passes into big gains, extending drives for a team that ranks No. 28 in third-down efficiency (34.1 percent).

Only one running back (Darren Sproles) caught more third-down passes than Woodhead from 2010-16. Of Woodhead's 78 catches on third downs over that span, he converted 51 percent of them (40) into first downs.

"I think he can definitely make a big impact," Flacco said. "I think it is on us to get him involved and put that fear in other teams that we can hurt people with him."

The Ravens thought so highly of Woodhead that they made him their first free-agent addition on offense. Baltimore signed Woodhead to a three-year, $8.8 million deal, reportedly beating out the Denver Broncos and Los Angeles Chargers to land the 32-year-old.

On Woodhead's first and only drive of the regular season with Baltimore, he caught three passes for 33 yards (including a one-handed reception) and ran once for 4 yards. That's when he aggravated a hamstring injury and was eventually placed on injured reserve.

Buck Allen was solid in the role as Baltimore's primary pass-catching back, but he's not the weapon Woodhead is. Allen leads the Ravens with 38 catches while averaging a meager 4.8 yards per catch.

This is where Woodhead's absence has affected the Ravens' efficiency in the passing game. Woodhead's career 9.4 yards-per-catch average nearly doubles Allen's total this year.

Woodhead presents Baltimore's biggest mismatch for defenses. His speed and elusiveness make him difficult to defend, especially on the angle routes out of the backfield.

"He was brought here in the role that you can all stand here and envision him playing," Harbaugh said. "We saw it a little bit in the first drive before he got hurt in the Cincinnati game. It’s an opportunity for Joe to have someone to work underneath a little bit, to drop the ball down to when he needs to, to run screens, to put out there as a wide receiver and create matchup issues for people. That’s the kind of guy that we’re looking for when we signed him. So, we signed him for a reason, and it’s going to be nice to have him on the field."

Woodhead was expected to miss six to eight weeks with the hamstring injury. He's now been sidelined nine weeks.

As one of the Ravens' designated for return players, Woodhead has practiced the past two weeks and is now eligible to play in a game.

"I’m feeling good, but understand there’s a process," Woodhead said.

Staying healthy has been a challenge for Woodhead. He has missed 22 of his past 23 games after tearing his ACL last year and hurting his hamstring this season.

But Woodhead is dangerous when he isn't battling injuries. In 2015, the year before his season-ending knee injury, Woodhead set career highs in yards from scrimmage (1,091) and touchdowns (nine). He also led all NFL running backs with 80 receptions, 755 receiving yards and six touchdown catches.

"I’ve been watching Woodhead kill for 10 years, since I’ve been in the league. I used to hate him, honestly, when he was in New England," wide receiver Mike Wallace said. "He’s a great player, great guy. He brings a lot of energy every day, so I’m excited about getting him back."