Baltimore Ravens better prepared for loss of J.K. Dobbins thanks to lesson of 20 years ago

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — A few hours after news broke Sunday that running back J.K. Dobbins is likely out for the season with a knee injury -- a fear later confirmed -- former Baltimore Ravens wide receiver Qadry Ismail tweeted out: “What in the Jamal Lewis circa 2001 is going on !?!?!”

Dobbins’ injury served as a painful reminder that this is the Ravens’ 20th anniversary of Lewis tearing the ACL in his left knee in training camp, which derailed the defending Super Bowl champions’ chances of repeating before the season began. Baltimore didn’t have a proven backup behind Lewis after allowing Priest Holmes to leave in free agency. The Ravens eventually paired an aging Terry Allen with a raw Jason Brookins, and it was a tough lesson that team officials have never forgotten.

In a way, the Ravens have been preparing for the loss of Dobbins for two decades. Dobbins injured the same knee as Lewis. He was hurt in the weeks leading up to the regular season like Lewis. But Baltimore’s current situation is not like the one in 2001.

No one is writing off the Ravens’ championship aspirations because of the season-ending injury to Dobbins. Their Super Bowl odds remain 14-to-1, the fifth-best in the NFL, according to Caesars Sportsbook.

Baltimore has a starter-caliber replacement in Gus Edwards, a running scheme that has a track record of producing highly efficient backs and a dynamic playmaker in quarterback Lamar Jackson, who has always been the Ravens’ most dangerous runner even when Dobbins lined up beside him.

Edwards, 26, is a punishing, straight-ahead runner who trimmed down this summer and looks faster than he ever has. He rarely gets stopped behind the line, which is one reason why he has received the fifth-best rushing grade (90.2) by Pro Football Focus since 2018. It’s realistic to project Edwards to run between 1,100 and 1,200 yards and total close to double-digit touchdowns.

The Ravens won’t be as dynamic in the backfield without Dobbins. Last season, he became the first player since Adrian Peterson in 2012 to total 800 yards, nine rushing touchdowns and a 6.0-yard average.

After Saturday's 37-3 rout of Washington, Ravens players had the look of devastation when asked about Dobbins' injury. It's a tough blow to an offense that has dealt with numerous injuries at wide receiver and along the offensive line this summer.

The numbers, however, surprisingly suggest the Ravens won't lose much in explosiveness and red zone efficiency.

On big runs, Dobbins broke a 15-yard gain once every 11.1 carries last season. Edwards averaged one every 14 runs in 2020.

Inside the 20-yard line, Dobbins recorded eight touchdowns on 25 carries. Edwards scored six touchdowns on 25 attempts.

The biggest drop-off from Dobbins to Edwards is in the passing game. Dobbins focused on becoming a better pass-catcher this year, and he made one-handed receptions and leaping catches in the end zone all offseason. Edwards has 18 catches in three seasons.

Edwards has shown the ability to spearhead the Ravens’ rushing attack in the past. Midway through the 2018 season, Edwards took over as the starting running back at the same time Jackson assumed the starting quarterback role. Over the past seven games that season, Edwards gained 654 yards, which trailed only Saquon Barkley and Derrick Henry during that span.

But the Ravens’ moves indicate they prefer Edwards as their backup back. Baltimore added Mark Ingram II in free agency in 2019 and then drafted Dobbins in the second round in 2020.

Edwards’ backup is Ty'Son Williams, a second-year player out of BYU who leapfrogged Justice Hill on the depth chart. Williams impressed the Ravens with his physicality.

The Ravens gave Edwards a vote of confidence when they signed him to a two-year, $10 million extension this offseason. It was a well-earned reward for Edwards, who went from going undrafted to being only one of two players to produce at least 700 yards rushing and average 5-plus yards per carry in the first three seasons of a career.

This was another instance of Baltimore wanting a reliable backup plan at running back since 2001. Over the years, the Ravens have had the likes of Chester Taylor, Mike Anderson, Willis McGahee, Ricky Williams and Justin Forsett as their No. 2 running backs.

In 2014, the Ravens had to shift to their backup running back before the start of the season because Ray Rice was cut after video surfaced showing him punching his then-fiancée during an altercation at an Atlantic City hotel. Forsett responded with a Pro Bowl season, and Baltimore reached the AFC divisional round in the playoffs.

With two weeks before the start of the 2021 season, the Ravens don't feel like they've lost their stride because of Edwards. Dobbins’ injury hasn’t wrecked Baltimore’s championship dreams, and it’s because of what the Ravens learned 20 years ago.