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Mike Preston: A healthy J.K. Dobbins would heal the Ravens’ running game | COMMENTARY

In three preseason games, the Ravens didn’t produce a dominant runner. That does not bode well for an offense that is centered around the running game, and it only adds to the intrigue of J.K. Dobbins’ return to the starting lineup.

The problem? Nobody knows exactly when he will return. Coach John Harbaugh has kept a veil of secrecy around Dobbins’ knee injury and recovery from a torn ACL over the last year. Still, I’d be surprised if he doesn’t start Sunday in the season opener against the New York Jets.

The Ravens’ rushing attack needs a lift. It hasn’t been its usual self since 2020, and in the preseason — without Dobbins — Baltimore ran for 226 yards on 71 carries, or 3.18 yards per carry. That’s not good enough.

Dobbins’ return is only rivaled by the comeback of Pro Bowl left offensive tackle Ronnie Stanley, which would give much-needed stability to the offensive line. Stanley, who is recovering from multiple ankle surgeries after his initial injury in November 2020, returned to full-team workouts Monday.

“It just depends on how he’s doing,” Harbaugh said of Stanley on Monday before giving an overall assessment of recovering injured players after a three-day layoff from practice. “A lot of it has to do with how he’s feeling and if he’s ready to go. If he feels strong, if he’s moving and feels like he can be successful, and if we see what we need to see. Same thing with J.K., [cornerback] Marcus [Peters] or any of those guys.”

One thing that’s certain: It will be hard for the Ravens to win without either one.

“J.K. has looked better every day, he looks good,” Harbaugh said after practice last Wednesday. “His quickness is kind of back.”

Kind of? That raises alarm bells. Years ago, knee injuries basically took two years to heal, but recent advances in surgery, technology and rehabilitation have closed the window to one.

However, some players heal faster than others, and we’re not privy to the extent of Dobbins’ injury. Until he plays a game, there is still a certain degree of uncertainty that he can be back to his old self and handle the wear-and-tear of an NFL season.

Games are brutal for all NFL players, but especially running backs because of the consistent body blows and the hard cuts they make to get past defenders.

That’s why the Ravens have been so patient with Dobbins. They can’t afford to have their 2020 second-round draft pick out of the lineup for another season. Last year, when Dobbins and backup Gus Edwards (knee) suffered season-ending injuries before Week 1, the Ravens brought in veterans Devonta Freeman (133 carries for 576 yards) and Latavius Murray (119 carries for 501 yards). They were serviceable replacements, but they couldn’t deliver big plays.

As insurance, the Ravens have added veterans Mike Davis and Kenyan Drake this season, but Dobbins has a combination of speed and power they simply don’t possess. He isn’t a home run hitter, but he can produce an occasional big gain. There is a suddenness to his game that provides the Ravens with another outside threat alongside quarterback Lamar Jackson.

In an offense that is centered around running the ball, Jackson and Dobbins are the bread and butter.

As a rookie in 2020, Dobbins rushed for 805 yards on 134 carries and scored nine touchdowns. He was expected to become one of the top running backs in the league last season once he improved as a receiver out of the backfield.

But the injury in the preseason finale against Washington delayed that rise to stardom. Now, Dobbins appears ready to make the leap. During training camp, Dobbins was clearly agitated by being held out of practices, but he performed well in drills.

If he gets on the field against the Jets, that will be a major step in his return. Another will be having three or four strong games in a row. If he can develop as a pass catcher, he will be a better player than he was before the knee injury.

But there are a lot of ifs, which makes Dobbins so intriguing. If he plays as well as he did as a rookie, Dobbins will have healed both himself and the Ravens’ running game.

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