Football is a sport based upon planning and practice. If teams (particularly coaches) don’t spend the offseason with an honest, clear and concise plan, then they will be behind the eight ball. Injuries happen, plans go awry and being able to self-scout is imperative to succeed as circumstances change.
Being able to self-evaluate with honesty is an integral part of being successful. In football, and in life, it means accentuating your strengths then identifying your weaknesses. Once you identify your weaknesses they fall into one of two categories.
- This weakness is a work in progress. We have identified the problem and will continue working towards a solution.
- This weakness can’t be fixed with the current players, coaches and structure. Without making major changes in the front office, coaching staff or roster, we won’t reach a solution.
Successful teams aren’t stubborn in regard to what can’t be fixed. They adapt, rather than beating a dead horse with wishful thinking. The Chicago Bears and the Seattle Seahawks are examples of obdurate thinking.
Matt Nagy was stubborn to rely on his run game to aid Mitchell Trubisky, who clearly isn’t quite ready to spearhead an offensive aerial attack.
Pete Carroll insists on running the ball despite the fact that his quarterback is perhaps the best in the league, and can spearhead an offense as displayed by his league leading EPA and efficiency regardless of volume.
It simplifies into other aspects. If your pass rush can’t get home without blitzing, you will need to blitz. If your receivers have trouble separating, you will need to manufacture separation with screens.
In the case of John Harbaugh’s Ravens, for a long time, they were stubborn. They aren’t anymore. Following their most recent Super Bowl win there was massive overhaul. Gone were long time staples like Reed and Lewis. They paid a quarterback a significant portion of the cap. They struggle to self-evaluate. What’s working? What’s not?
Joe Flacco, the strong armed pocket passer was, for some reason, put into a West Coast offense based on quick strikes. The Ravens allowed the likes of Ben Grubbs, Kelechi Osemele and other key lineman to move on without effectively replacing them first. Their roster configuration (with cap space in mind) simply wasn’t configured properly amidst this change.
The identity of the Baltimore Ravens was based on defense, running the ball and making enough big plays in the passing game to win games. Instead, from 2013-2019 they were stuck between two identities: a hard-nosed old school team on one hand, a “modern” style offense on the other hand.
That resulted in mediocrity. The stability of the franchise, the leadership in place, the week-to-week planning and the routines were good enough to keep them competitive, but not good enough to be contenders.
Essentially, in 2017 one scout fell in love with the idea of an electric quarterback from Louisville. That one scout turned into the entire front office buying into drafting the quarterback a year later. The Ravens did their best to hide what they saw in him; a quarterback who is the most electric player on the field at all times. They also recognized that in order for him to grow and truly flourish, his soil and sunlight might need to be different than the norm.
You know the rest.
Fast forward to the 2019 offseason. The Ravens spent their offseason doing two things. Retooling a defense without breaking the bank and giving Lamar Jackson everything he needed to succeed.
They made sure to extend their future Hall-of-Fame right guard. They signed a reliable veteran three down back. They secured arguably the best blocking tight end in the NFL, who reportedly generated preliminary interest from nearly 20 teams. They drafted a true deep threat who garners eyeballs and respect. They simplified the verbiage of the playbook. Then they put on their hard hats and went to work.
Throughout the offseason the Ravens didn’t stop throwing the ball. During training camp, high tempo passing drills dominated. Nearly every day significant portions of practice were spent in the red zone rehearsing passing drills. They ran seven-on-seven passing drills, split field passing drills, tempo passing drills and everything in between. John Harbaugh and company got Lamar Jackson the reps he needed. The Ravens were quiet and methodical, spending as much time necessary to ensure that their passing attack would be as good as it needed to be.
The only noise that came from the Ravens training camp was John Harbaugh warning that something “revolutionary” was about to happen. He wasn’t blowing smoke. The Ravens offense is doing something that has never been done before. They’re averaging over 200 yards passing and 200 yards rushing per game. No team has done that over a full season. In other words, the revolution is upon us and it’s taking the league by storm.
That revolution has resulted from consistency. The Ravens developed a plan, stuck to it, self-evaluated what didn’t work, gauged if it could be fixed, and solved what they were capable of solving. One such issue was using too much 11 personnel. The Ravens ran 11 personnel against Cleveland and Pittsburgh too often instead of relying on their heavy packages. That resulted in lackluster performances in both games. Since, usage of 12, 13, 21, 22, and 23 personnel has spiked. Stick to your bread and butter or end up in the gutter.
Offensively, that translates to playing bully ball. The Ravens use the pistol formation more than the rest of the NFL combined. They also use heavier personnel, which essentially zags when the NFL zigged with smaller, faster defenders.
Of 587 offensive snaps through eight games, Patrick Ricard, Hayden Hurst, Mark Andrews and Nick Boyle have been on the field for 1,141 snaps. In other words, the Ravens have five lineman and two small lineman on the field at all times. They don’t run plays without one of those four on the field.
That makes tackling Mark Ingram and Gus Edwards miserable. Linebackers and safeties are forced to fight through five lineman, two large tight ends, then hit two of the NFL’s leaders in yards after contact. Playing defense against the Ravens offense isn’t fun.
Perhaps two decades ago this strategy wouldn’t work. With linebackers like Junior Seau, Derrick Brooks, Joey Porter, Takeo Spikes, Ray Lewis, James Farrior etc. linebackers were bigger, stronger and more physical. Roger Godell’s idea of what football should be has translated into pass-friendly rules. Teams responded by getting smaller and faster to defend the pass. Safeties became linebackers. Linebackers became defensive lineman.
The Ravens, however, decided to short the market. Just like Michael Burry did in the subprime mortgage crises of 2008, the Ravens have seen a vulnerability in the market and bet the house against it.
The profit has paid dividends beyond their wildest dreams, as the Ravens have run for over 200 yards in nine of Lamar Jackson’s 15 starts.
Jackson’s speed and vision, the physicality and efficiency of Gus Edwards and Mark Ingram, mixed with Greg Roman’s diverse offense have created a monster. Let’s look at how that monster took form against the NFL’s No. 1 defense in Week 9.
The Ravens started out on their first drive playing chess immediately. They predicted what the Patriots would expect based on tendencies. The Ravens love to run an “F-Lead Option” where Patrick Ricard crosses Lamar Jackson’s face, then seals the perimeter for Jackson to run. The Ravens lined up in the same formation they typically run the FL Option out of (Nick Boyle in-line as a tight end on one side, Patrick Ricard next to Lamar Jackson on the opposite side) then ran two wrinkles from it.
First, a speed option where Jackson flipped the ball to Mark Ingram, who rumbled 13 yards. Next, they brought Hollywood in motion and pushed a pop pass to him, as Ricard took out ROLB Jamie Collins’ legs, then Hollywood scampered for 24 yards. The Ravens ran a pop pass and a speed option, untouched, for 37 yards on back to back plays.
Roman made one poor decision on 3rd and 2 inside the Patriots 10 yard line. He elected to use 11 personnel and run Gus Edwards on an inside zone. It was stuffed, but the Ravens used a hard count on 4th down to get the Patriots to jump, then used heavy personnel, as they should’ve on 3rd and 2.
Ravens opening drive:— Spencer N. Schultz (@ravens4dummies) November 6, 2019
Roman decides to run gus out of 11 personnel. Seemed a bit too obvious. Whenever Gus is back in RZ short yardage situations, they run inside. Stuffed.
Tucker comes out, you can hear Ravens use hard count "hit, hit!" and Pats jump. Ravens score after NZI pic.twitter.com/YzrUtfkt9y
The Ravens didn’t attempt a single deep pass. The Patriots lone deep completion was tightly contested by Earl Thomas, yet James White was able to make an acrobatic catch.
Sunday night featured the two best secondaries in the league (no disrespect to Buffalo) and they played like it.
Lamar Jackson’s stat line as a passer was unimpressive. He certainly missed some open reads. However, his improved quick-pass timing and accuracy is crucial moving forward. There are teams, like the Patriots, that excel at defending the deep ball. Greg Roman dialed up nice traffic jams that forced Patriots defensive backs to fight through traffic to make plays. Marquise Brown had a 16 yard gain on 2nd and 11 deep in Patriots territory. That gain moved the chains, then led to a game-clinching touchdown.
The Ravens offense was executing at an extremely high level as a collective. Seth Roberts was a revelation blocking downfield. On Mark Ingram’s 53 yard race, Roberts drove his defender from the Patriots 45 yard line to the 20 before the defender could disengage. Roberts has quietly been locking defenders up on the perimeter. Whenever his number is called, he does his job.
‘The Four Horseman’ played 139 snaps on 70 Ravens offensive plays. Notably, Nick Boyle led the tight end group with 59 snaps. Mark Andrews was on the field for only 24. Patrick Ricard split out at tight end with Boyle and Hurst in a “full house” pistol formation on three occasions, each of which resulted in a positive play. Look to see more of that grouping in the future.
In the first quarter the Ravens held the ball for 13:42, sustaining drives of 6:47 (touchdown), 5:20 (field goal) and 1:35 (touchdown). Greg Roman ran wrinkles that he’s been sitting on for quite some time. The speed option was used out of the Ravens highest usage formation (F-Weak Pistol Right) featuring Patrick Ricard at fullback on the weak side and Nick Boyle at tight end on the strong side. The Ravens ran a power, speed option, pop pass and inside zone from the same formation in this game.
The Ravens play calling was as follows:
‘True’ run- 23
‘True’ pass- 15
Play action- 9
Read Option- 12
Speed Option- 2
Pop Pass- 1
My takeaways from the play calling and play designs as a whole:
- Greg Roman has wrinkles on top of wrinkles. The same exact formation can be four different plays in four different directions. Linebackers don’t have good games against the Ravens because of it.
- The only way to defeat Lamar Jackson and the Ravens read option is with supreme athleticism. Obviously, it takes discipline, but the only team that has done it (Chargers) did it by stacking Derwin James next to Joey Bosa, two of the few athletes in the entire world capable of keeping up with Jackson.
- Nick Boyle is one of the best tight ends in the NFL.
- The Ravens have the best tight end room in the NFL.
- Lamar Jackson can be trusted to win games by throwing underneath. His quick strike accuracy and decision making is improving exponentially. When teams take away the deep ball, he can still pick them apart short and to the sideline.
- The Ravens opted not to rely on play action as much in this one. That allowed to ball to come out quicker from the time of the snap.
- Hollywood is an all-around receiver, but also isn’t 100% healthy. The fact that he can do what he has, while clearly limited from his full capabilities, is both gritty and impressive. In 2020 I expect him to explode.
- The Ravens still need to dial up more screens, they didn’t use one in this game, although crossing patters with picks and traffic jams are relatively similar.
- Mark Ingram is a force as a receiver. He needs more designed pass plays out of the backfield.
- The Ravens offense is a circus. A 300 pound bear of a defensive tackle is running flat routes and getting first downs. Mark Ingram is running the tight rope on the sideline. Lamar Jackson is a trapeze artist making the impossible look easy.
- They should never run this play again
Greg Roman called some awesome plays Sunday night. This wasn't one. Lets tear this page from the playbook and burn it. Needs to be an RPO. pic.twitter.com/5Eh7NvL78n— Spencer N. Schultz (@ravens4dummies) November 6, 2019
Josh Bynes ability to diagnose what motions mean, communicate, and align the defensive line has made a world of difference. Since acquiring Bynes, the Ravens have the No. 1 total run defense and it’s easy to see why. PFF agrees, as they currently have him as the sixth highest graded inside linebacker in football with 150+ snaps. He ranks in the top 10 in both run defense and coverage.
Bynes made a great break on a flat route and had the chance to pick off Brady, but couldn’t quite reel it in. The Ravens rotated the linebackers steadily, which also was skewed by the Patriots no-huddle keeping players on the field. No linebacker took over 30 snaps.
Chuck Clark ended up filling in as a linebacker in those no-huddle situations and made a few huge plays. He’s able to engage with offensive linemen, disengage and make plays. He had a huge stop for a loss when the Patriots were in goal to go, netting a three yard loss by scraping overtop and taking out Rex Burkhead’s legs.
Jimmy Smith was as physical as ever and looked sharp in his return. He made several big hits and appears to be fully recovered from his injury. That solidifies the Ravens back-end as one of the best in show. The collection of talent between the group is mind-boggling.
*JIMMY SMITH HIT STICK ALERT*— Spencer N. Schultz (@ravens4dummies) November 6, 2019
Marcus Peters, Jimmy Smith, Marlon Humphrey, Earl Thomas and Chuck Clark... uh oh. pic.twitter.com/yINWS77ROa
Earl Thomas consistently harassed Brady, pressuring him multiple times, breaking up a third down throw to Julian Edelman at the goal line and intercepting Brady to put the cherry on top. Anyone who claims that Earl “isn’t the same player” is simply wrong. He’s a force to be reckoned with. His usage in the box and as a moving piece is a nightmare for opposing quarterbacks and play callers. He truly is cut from the same cloth as the Ed Reed’s of the world, although no one will ever be a bigger playmaker than Ed.
Jihad Ward has brought a notable athleticism and good range to the 3-technique. He chased down a 3rd and 25 screen pass over 20 yards downfield and recovered a fumble that was overturned, but certainly was a high motor play. He can close much better than Chris Wormley, Brandon Williams or Michael Pierce.
Brandon Williams and Michael Pierce haven’t been forced to stay on the field to the point of exhaustion, which has allowed (particularly Williams) to be explosive.
Finally, Patrick Onwuasor has returned to similar usage and role that he maintained towards the end of the 2018 regular season, which resulted in his best game of the year. Onwuasor’s last three forced fumbles have been returned for touchdowns. Marlon Humphrey’s 70 yard scoop-’n’-score was the longest in team history, and marked his second straight game with a defensive touchdown.
Humphrey consistently overpowered Julian Edelman, who appeared to be a tad overwhelmed after the catch. Humphrey has turned from a high-end cover corner into a ‘Playmaker’ who has made impact plays in four games, three of which arguably won the game. His ball skills seem to be improving rapidly. Humphrey is starting to develop that knack for being in the right place at the right time that so many all-time greats have possessed. His continued growth and consistency into year three indicated that the sky is the limit for No. 44.
Matthew Judon is PFF’s No. 98 EDGE player, and I couldn’t disagree more. He hit Tom Brady four times and disrupted multiple run plays. He’s among the league leaders in pressures, QB hits, and pass rush win rate.
"Life is short, run to the ball"— Spencer N. Schultz (@ravens4dummies) November 6, 2019
John Harbaugh has been wearing that t-shirt almost weekly. @man_dammn beats his man in two steps, Bynes fills, then three other front-7 defenders collapse on Michel.
Run defense is suffocating since acquiring Bynes in week 4. pic.twitter.com/VLDYG1PYZe
Jaylon Ferguson and Tyus Bowser are just doing their job, and I mean that in the most complimentary way. They hold the edge well, are rarely caught out of position and simply look the part. Finally, the Ravens have some stability from their defensive front.
Wink Martindale mixed man with zone, stunted frequently and the Ravens did a great job of bailing out of blitzes once Tom Brady called them out. The Patriots couldn’t buy a hole in the run game, so they moved to the no huddle. Facing the no huddle was great for the Ravens defense. It was good practice in streamlining communication, players filling in at positions they don’t always play and in several other areas. The experience that the Ravens defense had against the Patriots no huddle will pay dividends, as teams will certainly try to push the pace against Baltimore to negate their aggression and pass rush.
The Ravens played their best game under the brightest lights with the world watching. Beating the undefeated Patriots on Sunday night in front of the home crowd and getting experience in what was essentially a playoff atmosphere will go a long way as far as confidence.
“We’re on to Cincinnati.”