clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Running in a “passing league”

Can the Ravens formula take them to the top?

Baltimore Ravens Team Minicamp

The Baltimore Ravens are going to run the ball in 2019. That’s not a secret. John Harbaugh hasn’t left it up to interpretation. The firing of Marty Mornhinweg and passing of the torch to Greg Roman was arguably the most deliberate attempt to solidify a true offensive identity in Ravens history.

Mornhinweg, a believer of the West Coast offense, used short passes as a running game. It didn’t work. With Joe Flacco under center dating back to the start of the 2016 season, the Ravens were dreadful when they lost balance between running the ball and throwing it.
The Ravens wins and losses since 2016 with Joe Flacco under center—

  • 10-1 when attempting fewer than 35 passes (lone loss coming in London against Jacksonville).
  • 11-20 when attempting 35 passes or more.
  • 7-13 when attempting 40 passes or more.
  • 0-5 when attempting 50 passes or more.

Long story short, when the Ravens relied on the passing game, they lost around twice as many games as they won. When they toned down the passing game, they won.
When the Ravens threw the ball less than 35 times and won, their rushing attempts were as follows—
34, 42, 32, 39, 40, 26 (in Green Bay 2017), 31, 28 (against Buffalo season opener in 2016), 29 (vs. Pittsburgh in Baltimore 2016), 24 (vs. Eagles in Baltimore 2016).
When the Ravens threw the ball 35 times or more and won, their rushing attempts were as follows-
30, 30, 35, 29 (in Detriot MNF 2017), 31, 32, 26 (vs. Cleveland in Baltimore 2016), 22 (vs. Jacksonville in Baltimore 2016), 32, 30, 20 (vs. Miami TNF 2016).
With Flacco under center, the Ravens won only eight games where they failed to run the ball 30 times. They didn’t win a game without rushing the ball 20 times. The failure of the coaching staff to realize how necessary running the ball was led to mediocrity in the offenses ability to move the ball, let alone score. I believe that the Ravens offense under Joe Flacco would’ve been much more successful if the Ravens committed to the run more in tough games.
The failure to do so is the result of Marty Mornhinweg’s West Coast offensive ideology, and inability to consistently scheme up a strong rushing attack against stout defensive fronts. This led to Joe Flacco being one of the NFL leaders in pass attempts over the past few years. When looking at how the Ravens fared when the game was put solely on Flacco’s arm, it would be logical to try something else. As Albert Einstein once said, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.”

There are several counter points about how necessary running the ball is in today’s NFL—
“When you get behind, you have to throw the ball.”
This is true to an extent, but abandoning the run entirely allows pass rushers to pin their ears back. Running the ball “keeps the defense honest.” If it’s broken, fix it. Abandoning the run didn’t lead to any sort of consistent ability to comeback or win games.
“The NFL is a passing league, you have to throw it to win.”

While countless analytics stress the importance of being able to consistently throw the ball, when playoff teams face each other, or in games with playoff implications, the team that runs the ball more often wins. How many times have you heard the phrase, “you have to be able to run the ball in January.” The Colts were a strong example of what running the ball can do in the post-season:

The Texans finished the 2018 regular season allowing only 1,323 yards (Ravens allowed 1,327). The Chiefs allowed 2,114, which was the sixth most in the league. The Colts sustained success while running the ball, panicked when the Chiefs started moving the ball and scoring, then abandoned the run. They went away from what got them to where they were.
Relative to the Ravens, the opposite happened. In the Wild Card game against the Los Angeles Chargers, the Ravens abandoned throwing the ball. They put the training wheels back on Lamar Jackson that came off against the Chiefs in the regular season. Jackson’s throws leading up to the final quarter weren’t as terrible as you remember:

When looking at Lamar Jackson’s advanced stats, a couple of things jump out.

  1. On 1st & 10, Jackson was stellar during the regular season. He was 35 of 52 (67%) averaging 9.0 Y/A and had a 100.3 passer rating.
  2. When trailing, Jackson was 39 of 57 (68%) throwing 4 TD and 0 int, and had a passer rating of 118. When tied, Jackson was slightly lower, at 95, and when leading, he was horrendous. When the Ravens had a lead, Jackson completed only 48% of his passes, and had an abominable 55 passer rating, throwing all three of his regular season interceptions

Jackson excelled throwing the ball when the Ravens were close or trailing, particularly on first down. When the Ravens had the lead, they played conservatively, trying to milk the clock. Jackson averaged only 4.5 Y/A when the Ravens had the lead.

In the Wild Card round, the Ravens should’ve let Jackson air it out sooner to keep the defense honest. Prior to the fourth quarter, the Ravens called only 15 pass plays. Jackson was sacked three times, scrambled three times, threw a screen, and attempted two quick passes under five yards. The Ravens called two deep passes (20+ yards) which were both incomplete, and Jackson threw an interception that sailed high, off of his receivers hands, and was tipped to a defender.

It took the Ravens over three quarters of dump offs and being man-handled up front to spread the Chargers out, and attack overtop. They finally allowed Jackson to use his athleticism in open space to make plays in the passing game. He still missed a few reads, and held onto the ball too long:

Tony Romo even highlighted who would be open, and where Lamar should’ve gone. Scoring a touchdown would’ve been a daunting task, but hopefully he’s able to learn from these mistakes. The same way that the Ravens needed to run the ball to help Joe Flacco, they need to allow Lamar to spread the defense out and attack them with his arm. The training wheels have to come off. . . for good.

This Wild Card game was the culmination of the frustrations under Marty Mornihnweg’s offense, and why Greg Roman was given the reigns. In Lamar’s seven starts during the regular season, the Ravens ran the ball 65% of the time. In Greg Roman’s six seasons as an offensive coordinator, he stayed around a 50-55% rushing split. Roman has stated several times his equilibrium in his ideal offense is 58%.

Roman was the offensive coordinator primarily for Colin Kaepernick and Tyrod Taylor in his six seasons as the San Francisco 49ers then Buffalo Bills play caller. Alex Smith started in 2011. In five of the six seasons, his offensive units ranked in the top 10 of DVOA which pertains to efficiency. Let’s take a look at how Roman’s QB’s/offenses waged under his tutelage.

2011- Alex Smith

3,144 yards, 61.4% completion, 17 TD - 5 INT, 90.4 QB Rating, 53 QBR

49ers offense finished 3rd in rushing attempts, 31st in passing attempts— 52.4% rushing split

49ers finished 13-3 (won division) and lost to the Giants in the NFC Championship

2012- Colin Kaepernick (replaced Smith after injury, played final seven games)

1,814 yards, 62.4% completion, 10 TD - 3 INT, 98.3 QB Rating, 71.8 QBR

49ers offense finished 7th in rushing attempts, 31st in passing attempts— 53% rushing split. 49ers finished 11-4-1 (won division) and lost to the Ravens in the Super Bowl.

2013- Colin Kaepernick

3,197 yards, 58.7% completion, 21 TD - 8 INT, 91.6 QB Rating, 65.7 QBR

49ers offense finished 3rd in rushing attempts, 32nd in passing attempts— 54.7% rushing split.

49ers finished 12-4 (second in division) and lost to the Seahawks in the NFC Championship.

2014- Colin Kaepernick

3,369 yards, 60.6% completion, 19 TD - 10 INT, 86.4 QB Rating, 60.9 QBR

49ers offense finished 9th in rushing attempts, 29th in passing attempts— 49% rushing split.

49ers finished 8-8, missed the postseason.

2015- Tyrod Taylor (14 games played)

3035 yards, 63.7% completion, 20 TD - 6 INT, 99.3 QB Rating, 65 QBR

Bills finished 2nd in rushing attempts (led NFL in yards, touchdowns, yards per carry), 31st in passing attempts— 52.2% rushing split.

Bills finished 8-8, missed the postseason.

2016- Tyrod Taylor (15 game played) *** Roman was fired in September***

3,023 yards, 61.7% completion, 17 TD - 6 INT, 89.7 QB Rating, 61.4 QBR

Bills finished 2nd in rushing attempts (led NFL in yards, touchdowns, yards per carry), 32nd in passing attempts— 50.9% rushing split.

Bills finished 7-9, missed the postseason

If Roman calls a 58% rushing split, the Ravens will undoubtedly lead the NFL in rushing attempts in 2019. The Seahawks led the NFL with 53% of their total plays being a run.

Smith, Kaepernick and Tyrod Taylor averaged around 3,100 yards passing, 61% completion and 19 TD - 8 INT with their rushing splits between 50-53%. I would expect Lamar Jackson to throw 5% less, which would lead him to right around 3,000 yards 18 TD - 7 INT.

If the Ravens are able to have that efficiency, using the run game as a battering ram to open up the passing game, they can’t forget to throw the ball. If the Ravens can’t trust Lamar to make throws in big games, like he did in Kansas City, Los Angeles or against the Browns, then they’re selling themselves short, and stunting the young QB’s growth.

With that being said, Greg Roman’s acumen as a play caller and run game innovator will fool defenses, setting them up for huge chunk gains by varying between traps, counters, bashes, options, and creating combinations, such as counter bashes. It is mentally and physically imposing for a defense to handle.

Lets take a look at some of the staples of Roman’s rushing attack:

On this trap, watch the RDT, who is lined up in the B-gap between Marshal Yanda and James Hurst. Roman loves to call traps. Yanda and Hurst take a false-step to give a double-team look to the RDT, only to let him through, and Alex Lewis pulls from the LG position to “trap block” the RDT, and seal him. Traps are quick-hitters, which can open up huge lanes. They also can be blown up extremely easily if the trap-defender sniffs out the play, and blows up the pulling guard.

Let’s move on to Roman’s counter game:

Roman’s offense is based on pulling offensive lineman, and bringing blockers in motion. Brian Baldinger explains this strategy to outnumber the defense with blockers articulately:

These moving parts (lineman pulling and blockers coming in motion) causes defenses to have to adjust on the fly. When the defender starts questioning his job, responsibility or what look he’s getting, he isn’t being reactive. That defender is now passive, and flat footed. Flat footed against Lamar Jackson, Mark Ingram, Gus Edwards, Justice Hill, Kenneth Dixon, Marquise Brown and company. . . problematic.

All of this, then sets up the play action game:

The Ravens didn’t draft Mark Andrews, Marquise Brown, Ben Powers and Orlando Brown Jr. by accident. Oklahoma head coach Lincoln Riley utilizes a ton of pulling lineman and motion to confuse defenses. There should start to be some clear similarities between the two offenses. Expect the Ravens to take some pages out of Riley’s playbook this fall, and in the coming years.

I could go on for days, showing hundreds of innovative yet simple ways Lincoln Riley uses fake pulls, motions and ball fakes to manipulate defenders, get them flat footed and miss an assignment. If Lamar Jackson can improve his consistency as a passer on short, quick throws, the Ravens offense can be damn near unstoppable.

Running the ball and running the ball well is the easiest way to win in the National Football League. Of course, teams must be able to throw the ball well, but Super Bowls are won up front. If your team’s big uglies beat your opponent’s big uglies, your team will go far.

If the Ravens unleash Lamar in the passing game, stay healthy and stay somewhat balanced against top-notch opponents, 2,500 yards rushing, 3,000 yards passing and another AFC North title is within their grasp.

As always, follow me on twitter: @ravens4dummies

Follow Baltimore Beatdown on Instagram: @baltimore_beatdown

View this post on Instagram

Happy Birthday, @primetime_jet !

A post shared by Baltimore Beatdown (@baltimore_beatdown) on