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BALTIMORE — Before Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson established himself as a successful starter in the NFL, back when many considered him more of a project than a budding star, he was delivering handoffs to Gus Edwards.
Two years later, Jackson’s the reigning MVP one win away from his third straight trip to the playoffs. And Edwards remains in the fold, receiving regular carries, churning his legs and offering an ideal complement to Jackson in the backfield.
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When obstacles appear in front of Edwards, like the arrival of hyped competition in the running backs room or the threat of wear and tear that derails so many ball-carriers, he treats them like an opponent’s attempt at an arm tackle: He barrels right through.
Most of the starters from Jackson’s first playoff run in 2018 have either left the Ravens’ roster or taken on new roles. Marshal Yanda retired; John Brown and Michael Crabtree signed elsewhere; Ronnie Stanley and Nick Boyle suffered season-ending knee injuries this fall.
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Then there’s Edwards, a quiet player with a punishing running style who entered the NFL as an undrafted free agent and rolled up a team-high 85 rushing yards on 15 carries during Sunday’s win over the Giants. The Ravens will return to the postseason if they beat the Bengals this week, and they’re in a favorable position thanks in part to Edwards, once again.
“He’s really incredible,” tight end Mark Andrews said. “Gus, he deserves a lot more credit than he gets. He’s the heart and soul, kind of, of our team, really, with everything he does, the way he runs the ball. You see the way he catches the ball, and he breaks tackles left and right. He’s a beast.”
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Edwards added two receptions for 37 yards against the Giants, including one in which he caught the pass, broke two tackles along the right sideline and regained his balance to run for 27 yards.
When asked about Ravens running back Gus Edwards, coach John Harbaugh gave a description of the soft-spoken third-year player that seemed to match his running style.
“He’s a straightforward kind of a guy [with his] work ethic, personality [and] professionalism,” Harbaugh said. “He has a lot of talent. Yes, I would say it hasn’t changed one bit. That’s who he is.”
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Earlier in the season, offensive coordinator Greg Roman referred to Edwards as a “closer,” a bruising late-game option for tired defenses after tackling Mark Ingram II for the majority of a game. But Edwards has ascended into more of a starring role alongside rookie J.K. Dobbins in recent weeks, showcasing elusiveness that was the focal point of offseason workouts.
As an undrafted rookie free agent from 2018, Edwards burst onto the scene late in the season as the Ravens turned to then-rookie Lamar Jackson and a run-oriented approach. Edwards, currently listed at 6-foot-1 and 238 pounds, was a perfect complement for the shifty Jackson. Edwards was a burly downhill runner who forced defenses to monitor inside runs while Jackson posed a threat on the edge on read-option plays. In the final seven games of the season that Jackson started, Edwards rushed for 654 yards and two touchdowns, averaging 5.27 yards per carry.
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In his second season, Edwards returned to a backup role with the team’s acquisition of Ingram and he was maybe even better. Just five of Edwards’ 133 carries in 2019 resulted in negative yardage. As Edwards and Ingram returned for the 2020 season, as well as second-year back Justice Hill, and the team drafted Dobbins in the second round of the NFL draft, Edwards went to work to become an all-around back.
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Edwards spent much of an offseason warped by the coronavirus pandemic working out with Baltimore-based trainer P.J. Quarrie, who also trained Hill, wide receiver Marquise “Hollywood” Brown and other Ravens players before the start of the season.
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It wasn’t the first time Edwards embarked on speed training — he did so after a disappointing 40 time at his Pro Day at Rutgers — but Quarrie sought to improve Edwards’ footwork, the core of any good running back.
“If we don’t address the feet and the ankle first, then you’re actually doing any athletes a disservice,” Quarrie said in an interview.
The foundation of Edwards’ training was single-leg plyometric exercises, much of the workouts conducted barefoot, to strengthen his feet and ankles. Over time, Quarrie began to notice Edwards’ calves grow and his balance improved.
“His movements are powerful,” Quarrie said. “He has to be able to push off the ground, redirect, [deaccelerate], redirect, [accelerate, deaccelerate]. If you don’t have that power to push into the ground and control your body weight, then you’re not going to be effective.”
Those types of plays epitomize Edwards’ NFL career: He keeps on pushing.
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The 6-foot-1, 238-pound runner entered the league after college stops at Miami and Rutgers carrying impressive size for a running back. Questions hovered around his ability to accelerate and make NFL defenders miss.
Though the Ravens cut Edwards before the start of the 2018 season, they eventually signed him off the practice squad and plugged him into the lineup, where his straight-ahead, forceful running style paired well with Jackson’s speed. Jackson could either hand the ball to Edwards, a bulldozer of a back, on a given play or sprint into open space himself.
Recently, Edwards has added some wiggle to his game that makes Jackson proud. He juked several Giants on Sunday and bounced carries toward the sideline, combining his power with hints of agility. Edwards also has more receiving yards the past two games (73) than he did in his first two seasons combined (65).
“Oh man, he’s doing it all right now,” Jackson said. “He’s catching the ball out of the backfield now – it’s getting deadly.”
Edwards credited the advancements in his skill set to the teammates in his position group, like Mark Ingram and J.K. Dobbins.
“The competition that’s in my room is tremendous,” he said Sunday. “When you see those guys go out and make the plays that they do, it motivates you. It’s no slack off. We’re all competitors, and we all keep pushing each other.”
Those other running backs have also made Edwards’ continued presence somewhat improbable. In 2018, Edwards wasn’t even the first running back to earn a promotion off the practice squad. He only received an opportunity after De’Lance Turner suffered a thigh injury.
Edwards established himself as a productive back down the stretch of the ’18 season, but then the Ravens signed Ingram, a multi-time Pro Bowler, the next spring and selected Justice Hill in the fourth round of the draft. This April, the Ravens drafted Dobbins in the second round.
All of those players brought more acclaim and higher expectations to Baltimore. None have been as steady of a force as Edwards, who averaged 5.2 yards per carry in 2018 and 5.3 in ’19. He’s gained an even 5 yards per rushing attempt this year.
Whenever Baltimore has made personnel moves that could nudge Edwards out of the backfield rotation, he’s rolled through defenses and tightened his grip on a prominent role.
“Gus is just being him,” Jackson said after Sunday’s rout of New York. “I’ve been saying that he’s ‘Gus the bus.’ He just keeps it going, living up to his name. I’m used to seeing it, so it’s not a surprise.”
Edwards, 25, is the only offensive skill-position player who has appeared in every one of Jackson’s starts for the Ravens, and he isn’t likely to leave the lineup soon — at least not until he enters restricted free agency in March.
Baltimore deactivated the 31-year-old Ingram the past two weeks and split playing time close to evenly between Dobbins and Edwards. Even when Dobbins takes on a larger workload, Edwards still offers value to the Ravens because of his muscle.
While he’s added new components to his game, Edwards’ downhill running prowess remains his trademark. NFL NextGen Stats rates him as the third-most efficient running back in the league with an average of 3.2 total yards run per every 1 positive yard gained. Edwards doesn’t move side-to-side too much or take many wasted steps.
He’s also tied for second in the NFL with an average of 1.13 more yards than expected per carry, according to NextGen Stats. In other words, if metrics say a typical running back would gain 3 three yards on a carry, Edwards would gain 4.13.