Jatavis Brown has watched enough of the Baltimore Ravens offense on tape this week to know that they love to run the football, and the Chargers linebacker is well aware of the statistics reflecting that approach.
Behind speedy read-option quarterback Lamar Jackson, Baltimore has averaged 230.4 yards a game rushing while winning four of its last five games and is the first team since the 1976 Pittsburgh Steelers — with 1,000-yard rushers Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier — to run for at least 190 yards in five consecutive games.
Brown’s response as he prepares for Saturday night’s game against the Ravens in StubHub Center?
Bring it on.
“I love a physical game, where they’re running the ball a lot,” said Brown, a 5-foot-11, 221-pounder who ranks second among the Chargers with 87 tackles. “You get a little juiced up when you know a team is going to run more.”
For the playoff-bound Chargers (11-3) to keep their AFC West title hopes alive, they can’t allow the Ravens (8-6) to grind them to a pulp.
While much of the focus in the run-up to the game has been on Jackson, a versatile rookie who has sparked the Ravens’ surge into playoff contention, Baltimore also has two bruising running backs who could take the Chargers defense out of its comfort zone.
Gus Edwards, a 6-foot-1, 238-pound rookie nicknamed “Gus the Bus,” has rushed for 486 yards in the last five games, fourth-most in the NFL since Week 11. He has not been dropped for a loss on any of his 111 carries this season.
And 5-10, 228-pound Kenneth Dixon has been a solid backup since he was activated off injured reserve on Dec. 1, rushing 40 times for 188 yards (4.7 yards per attempt) and two touchdowns in four games.
“The thing about their offense is, it’s the dive, the inside zone, their running backs,” Chargers defensive coordinator Gus Bradley said. “I think you can get all caught up in the quarterback and what he can do — and he can make some big plays — but if you don’t stop the dives first, you’re in trouble.”
The Chargers have thrived despite the absence of their best tackler, linebacker Denzel Perryman, who suffered a season-ending knee injury Nov. 11. They’ve had to rely heavily on a dime package that employs 5-11, 210-pound Adrian Phillips at middle linebacker or “box safety” and 5-10, 200-pound Desmond King at slot cornerback.
In fact, according to NFL Next Gen Stats, the Chargers have used dime personnel (six defensive backs) on 58% of plays this season, 20% more than any other NFL team. Phillips and King played all 60 defensive snaps in the Dec. 13 win at Kansas City.
The loss of Perryman (5-11, 240) could be more acute Saturday night. The dime package matches up well with pass-heavy teams such as the Kansas City Chiefs and Pittsburgh Steelers, but if the Ravens are successful on the ground early Saturday, the Chargers might need to add heft in the form of linebackers Kyle Emanuel (6-3, 250), Uchenna Nwosu (6-2, 251) and Hayes Pullard (6-0, 235).
“That depends on the personnel that they put on the field,” Chargers coach Anthony Lynn said. “If they’re small, I like our dime and nickel packages.”
The problem with going too big at linebacker is that the 6-2, 212-pound Jackson is fast and elusive enough to beat most linebackers around the edge.
Whether the Chargers go big or smaller at linebacker, Derwin James — a standout rookie who is strong and feisty enough to take on big ball-carriers and fast and long enough to chase down speedsters — will play a huge role. And the defensive linemen will have to clog running lanes and tackle effectively.
“Both of their backs are bigger and physical, so the yards after contact, as far as making people miss, they’re always leaning forward,” Bradley said of Edwards and Dixon. “A two-yard gain turns into a five-yard gain, so in the scheme, you can see why they’re piling up yards.”
Chargers running back Melvin Gordon, who sat out three games because of a sprained right knee, was a full participant in Thursday’s practice and will play Saturday. Gordon has racked up 802 yards rushing, 453 yards receiving and 13 touchdowns.
“He won’t be on a pitch count, but we’ll be watching him closely,” Lynn said. “We have more than a few capable guys who can go in and help us.”
Usual backup Austin Ekeler will not be an option. Lynn said that the running back, limited by neck and shoulder injuries, will not play. Justin Jackson will serve as Gordon’s primary backup.
Receiver Keenan Allen, who sat out the second half of the Dec. 13 win at Kansas City because of a hip injury, is listed as questionable. Allen said Thursday that he “should be good” to play. Lynn said it will be a game-time decision.
Gordon hasn’t decided if he will wear a knee brace. He prefers not to, “but I actually played with a brace on for one game this year,” he said. “You guys probably didn’t even notice. … The trainers want me to wear it for safety precautions, but when the playoffs hit and it’s time to go, there ain’t no brace.”