Inside the remarkable -- and controversial -- record Lamar Jackson, Ravens could break Monday

BALTIMORE -- The Baltimore Ravens’ pursuit of an NFL rushing record held by the 1970s Pittsburgh Steelers caused coach John Harbaugh to have a brief moment of nostalgia a week ago.

Harbaugh remembered how his childhood team, the Cleveland Browns, struggled to beat running back Franco Harris’ Steelers. He expressed his admiration for longtime Pittsburgh coach Chuck Noll and talked about how he has studied Noll’s philosophy.

"So, sure, that counts for something,” Harbaugh said of the record. "It’s kind of not really in the forefront of our thinking right now at all, but it’s something, for sure.”

When Baltimore hosts the Indianapolis Colts on Monday Night Football (8:15 p.m. ET, ESPN), the Ravens can set an NFL mark if they can surpass 100 yards rushing for their 44th straight game, and it feels like everyone in the football world now has an opinion on a record that few outside of Baltimore knew about until eight days ago.

Harbaugh revealed how much it meant to tie the 1974-1977 Steelers by breaking what some considered football etiquette on the final play of a 23-7 win over the Denver Broncos on Oct. 3. Instead of taking a knee with three seconds remaining, Baltimore had quarterback Lamar Jackson run for 5 yards to keep its streak of consecutive games with over 100 yards rushing alive. ESPN Stats & Information couldn’t find a single instance in the last 25 years of a team gaining yards when leading by double digits in the final five seconds, and Broncos coach Vic Fangio ripped the Ravens, saying "it was kind of bulls---."

The streak offers further validation of what Ravens officials have previously stated -- this franchise built the best rushing attack in the history of the NFL. The combination of Jackson’s catch-me-if-you-can elusiveness along with offensive coordinator Greg Roman’s genius with the ground game has generated running numbers over a three-year period never seen before in this league.

Roman told ESPN it was a “no-brainer” to run the ball on the final play in Denver.

"The only people that understand that are the people that have achieved that,” Roman said. "At that point in the game, it’s all about us and everybody else is a witness to it.”

Roman made the point that the Ravens wouldn’t have thrown the ball a season-high 37 times if they were chasing the record for the entire game. He didn’t even realize Baltimore had 97 yards rushing until after he looked up at the scoreboard following Justin Tucker' field goal with 1:51 remaining.

"We really didn’t think about that stuff until the win was secured,” Roman said. "At that point, if we get the ball back, what the heck? Let’s get it."

The Ravens’ streak is more impressive when you consider no other team over the past 44 years has produced more than 30 consecutive games of 100 yards rushing. The Browns, who have the second-longest active streak at six games, would have to put together 100-yard games through the middle of the 2023 season to even match the Ravens.

During Baltimore’s streak, the Ravens have rushed for 8,632 yards, an average of 200.7 yards per game. Baltimore has totaled 2,071 more rushing yards than any other team over this stretch.

"The stats don’t lie,” said Rex Ryan, a former NFL head coach who is currently an ESPN Sunday NFL Countdown analyst. "Statistically, they’re the best rushing attack ever, and you can’t argue that.”

The Lamar Jackson effect

The common denominator -- or, more accurately, the uncommon dominator -- is Jackson.

Before Jackson took over as starting quarterback, Baltimore ranked 27th in rushing in the first 10 weeks of 2018. With Jackson, the Ravens became the third team over the past two decades to lead the NFL in rushing in back-to-back seasons.

Jackson became the first quarterback to produce 1,000 yards rushing in two seasons -- 2019 and 2020 -- and he’s on pace for a third. Since the start of the 2019 season, Jackson has been outgained on the ground only by Derrick Henry, Nick Chubb, Dalvin Cook and Ezekiel Elliott.

The next Michael Vick? Jackson is way beyond that comparison now with how he’s mastered designed runs and scrambles.

"It’s almost like Barry Sanders is playing quarterback,” Fangio said.

The Ravens’ 43-game streak began with Jackson’s first start on Nov. 18, 2018. Over that time, 27 players have carried the ball, and running backs have rotated in the featured role. It was Gus Edwards in 2018, Mark Ingram in 2019 and J.K. Dobbins last season.

This season, it’s been anybody’s guess after Dobbins and Edwards suffered season-ending injuries. The current backfield of Latavius Murray, Le’Veon Bell and Devonta Freeman would’ve spearheaded a great fantasy football team -- in 2015.

It’s been a constant change with the blockers as well. Jackson has played behind 15 different starting offensive linemen. When Baltimore’s streak began, the starting offensive line was left tackle Ronnie Stanley, left guard Alex Lewis, center Matt Skura, right guard Marshal Yanda and right tackle Orlando Brown Jr.

When the Ravens tied the NFL record, their starting line was entirely different: left tackle Alejandro Villanueva, left guard Ben Powers, center Bradley Bozeman, right guard Kevin Zeitler and right tackle Patrick Mekari.

"Every play is drawn up on a chalkboard and is repped in practice, and you do it against a scout team,” said Matt Bowen, a seven-year NFL defensive back who is an NFL analyst for ESPN. "But sometimes, things go wrong. Lamar Jackson can make an offense look right on any given play because of dynamic traits and explosive play ability.”

The strange twist to all of this is Jackson, the most electric running quarterback, doesn’t want to be defined by his legs.

“I prefer to pass,” Jackson said. "I guess people get caught up when I rush. When I run the ball, I’m running it to score or have success on my run. I’m not running it to just get a yard and fall, so I think that’s why people get caught up in it. I’d rather pass for a touchdown than run it, too."

The ground guru

Roman is the NFL’s mobile-quarterback whisperer. He designed offenses that helped put former 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick in the Super Bowl and current Texans quarterback Tyrod Taylor in the Pro Bowl.

When Roman joined Harbaugh’s staff in 2017, he brought in the counter and trap concepts from his days with the 49ers. By the time Baltimore drafted Jackson, Roman installed the pistol formation as a staple and added a heavy dose of pre-snap movement with tight ends and fullbacks.

All of this misdirection and succinct ballhandling in the option game created football’s version of the shell game. In Roman's two seasons as Baltimore’s offensive coordinator, the Ravens ran for the most yards in NFL history in 2019 with 3,296, and they followed that up with the third-most yards in 2020 with 3,071.

"This guy is as multiple in the run game as anybody that’s ever done it,” Ryan said. "Greg Roman is a special guy. You got arguably the greatest rushing quarterback we’ve ever seen, and a guy who understands the run game as well as anybody.”

The Ravens can get “medieval” on teams, as Roman likes to say, by lining up six offensive linemen, two tight ends and a fullback and running the ball down their throats. That’s 2,713 pounds of blockers.

Baltimore can then spread defenses out and not even put a blocker on a Pro Bowl defensive end like the Chiefs’ Chris Jones. The Ravens used zone-read runs with Jackson and a running back, which forced Jones into a decision on who to tackle.

"If you play with hesitation in the NFL, you’re in trouble, but especially against this offense because they get downhill fast and they have Lamar Jackson,” Bowen said. "And if you hesitate against Lamar, it’s time to strike up the band and play the fight song.”

Yanda, an eight-time Pro Bowl lineman, once said Roman had the biggest playbook that he ever saw. After the Ravens ran for 251 yards in Week 2 against the Chiefs, Roman pointed out that Baltimore ran 36 completely different runs in that game and “had a lot more on the shelf.”

How many run plays are in Roman’s playbook?

“We have quite a few. I’m not putting a number on it,” Roman said, before flashing a smile. “But it’s a lot."

The Ravens haven’t looked like their historically dominant rushing attack recently, when they could run the ball at will. Baltimore gained 116 yards rushing in Detroit and finished with 102 yards rushing in Denver. Defenses have stacked the line of scrimmage, and Jackson has beaten them by throwing over 30 passes in each of the past two games.

Is Baltimore’s offensive identity changing?

"I wouldn’t jump to any conclusions, Roman said. "We’re going to do what we have to do to win each game. It’s not just about the run game. It’s about what you do to complement the run game [and] how you handle situations. We want to be a balanced outfit.”

The Ravens are going for it

When the Ravens tied the Steelers’ rushing streak, Franco Harris didn’t know what everyone was talking about.

"I called [former teammate] Rocky [Bleier], ‘What is all this discussion about?' I have no idea,” Harris said. "He explained it to me. It was an unknown record but it felt good that we had that record. During our run in the 70s, we accomplished a lot of things. So nice surprises like this along the way just makes you chuckle.”

From 1974 to 1977, Pittsburgh relied on Harris gliding around tacklers and Bleier bowling over them. In 1976, Harris and Bleier became the only Steelers duo to rush for over 1,000 yards in the same season.

Harris, who is the Steelers' all-time leading rusher, takes pride in the record, but he isn’t upset about how the Ravens tied the streak with the final run in Denver.

"You’re absolutely supposed to go for the record,” Harris said. "Definitely don’t take a knee.”

Ravens Pro Bowl cornerback Marlon Humphrey was among the players on the sideline hoping the team would not take a knee and attempt to tie the record. Humphrey told offensive tackle Ronnie Stanley he wants to play wide receiver and block so he can be a part of all the offensive players who were part of the streak.

“There’s been so many different O-lines, this guy goes down, that guy goes down, and it just hasn’t fell off. It’s crazy to do that,” Humphrey said. "It’s just a big testament to that.”

Humphrey is unsure whether he’ll be able to keep track of the Ravens’ rushing numbers on Monday night against the Colts. Harris, however, will be tuning in specifically to see if Baltimore can break Pittsburgh’s record.

"I root against the Ravens any way you look at it,” Harris said of the division rival. "But we know the Ravens are going to go for it."