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The Ravens can’t lose their “wrinkles” when trailing

Clock management and the Ravens key offensive concepts can’t go out the window

NFL: Kansas City Chiefs at Baltimore Ravens Mitch Stringer-USA TODAY Sports

To begin, the idea that a team struggles to win after trailing, in itself, is somewhat silly. Of course it’s difficult to win after falling behind by two scores or more. The margin for error is greatly reduced. However, pertaining to the Baltimore Ravens, there’s a clear cut distinction between the way their offense rolls when they have a lead versus when they’re attempting to comeback facing a deficit. Why is that?

To answer the question, let’s first examine what makes the Ravens offense so good in neutral situations, or when playing with a lead.

The Ravens offense puts defenses, particularly force players, in conflict. They use option and run pass option concepts to force one defender, typically an unblocked linebacker or defensive end, to pick their own poison. Crash on the RB? Lamar Jackson pulls the ball. Stay with Jackson? He hands the ball off. The RPO concepts get more complicated, allowing Jackson to sling the ball to open receivers additionally based upon force defender’s reactions.

Per Pro Football Reference, in 2019 the Ravens led the NFL in total RPO plays, RPO runs and RPO passes respectively. The Ravens also ranked third in play action pass attempts, which also tamper with defender’s abilities to correctly diagnose plays.

Lamar Jackson’s 173 RPO plays dwarfed the rest of the league. The next closest quarterback was Kyler Murray, who executed 108 such plays. Jackson’s 163 play action pass attempts were among only four passers (Jared Goff, Carson Wentz and Kyler Murray) to cross the 150 play action pass attempts mark.

The Ravens were also among the league leaders in pre-snap motion, which has proven to increase offensive production and efficiency over a large sample size. Warren Sharp, one of the industry leaders in football analytics spoke about how teams like the Ravens, Chiefs and 49ers leaned into pre-snap motion.

Sharp wrote, “The use of pre-snap motion has shown to be a positive in both the passing and running games. Some of the top playoff teams this season have truly embraced the use of motion, as the 49ers, Ravens, Patriots, Titans, and Chiefs represent the top five teams in overall motion usage. On top of that, the NFL as a whole has shown a slow but steady improvement in this area, increasing the usage of motion from 33% of plays in 2017 to 39% in 2018 and 43% in 2019.”

Unsurprisingly, all five of the teams who utilized motion at the highest rate found their way into the postseason behind efficient and productive offenses, including each conference champion. Using motion allows offenses to create numbers advantages, particularly if a defense doesn’t properly adjust. The Ravens use motion in their option run game to create a +1 or +2 blocker advantage, which leads to gaping holes for their backs and QB to run through. In the passing game, motions can force a defense to give up their disguise, or bluff. If a team is in man coverage, someone will be forced to walk out with a motion man, like if a running-back motions out of the backfield, whoever is assigned to covering him must follow. This gives offensive lines and passers a better idea of who might be blitzing, as well as eliminating possibilities for what the defensive coverage might be.

Put simply, motion exposes the defenses true intentions before the snap.

We’ve now established three major concepts that the Ravens offense deploys at an extremely high rate in comparison with the rest of the league’s offenses.

  • High rate of pre-snap motion.
  • High rate of option/RPO usage.
  • High rate of play action passing.

Now, let’s examine how those three pillars of their offense are impacted when they trail by two or more scores, which was put on display in the Ravens disappointing Monday Night Football loss to the Kansas City Chiefs.

The first instance where the Ravens started to drop the complexities of their offense was just before the end of the first half.

On the first play of the possession, the clock was stopped. The Ravens entered this possession with three timeouts. Sadly, they still had three timeouts when it concluded.

1-10-BLT 25 (1:48) (Shotgun) L.Jackson pass short middle to J.Dobbins to BLT 31 for 6 yards (J.Thornhill).

Their opening play, despite the clock being stopped, having three timeouts and needing a score, is simply an angle route to J.K. Dobbins. Dobbins gets the ball with a bit of space, but doesn’t generate any yards after the catch.

Dobbins was known as an electric ball carrier with the ability to make defenders miss at Ohio State. We’ve seen him do so already as a rusher, but the Ravens receivers have struggled to generate. . . anything after the catch so far. Ravens receivers in terms of expected YAC per reception (via @NextGenStats) —

  • Marquise Brown: -1.1, 6th worst in the NFL
  • Mark Andrews: -0.6
  • Miles Boykin: -0.3

These are the only receivers with enough targets to qualify, while Willie Snead IV had YAC above expectation on one first down reception against the Texans.

Now, back to the drive. . .

2-4-BLT 31 (1:30) (No Huddle, Shotgun) L.Jackson pass short left to M.Andrews to BLT 44 for 13 yards (B.Niemann).

The Ravens choose to go hurry up, and successfully move the ball towards mid field. Calling a timeout here would’ve made sense, allowing the Ravens to regroup and dial up a deep shot, or high percentage throw near the sideline, etc.

Instead, the Ravens use the hurry up again, calling an option keep for Jackson.

1-10-BLT 44 (1:11) (No Huddle, Shotgun) L.Jackson up the middle to 50 for 6 yards (D.Sorensen).

While Jackson is an extremely dangerous runner on these concepts, the Ravens gained very little in the grand scheme of things, while forcing themselves to take a timeout. They did work their way to midfield with over a minute to play, without using a timeout.

Instead, they use the hurry up again.

(:52) (No Huddle, Shotgun) L.Jackson sacked at BLT 43 for -7 yards (C.Jones). FUMBLES (C.Jones) [C.Jones], RECOVERED by KCB.Niemann at KC 49. B.Niemann to KC 49 for no gain (M.Andrews).

The decision not to call a timeout proves harmful, as the Ravens lazily failed to execute their assignments. Bozeman completely whiffs on Chris Jones, who bulls into Lamar Jackson and forces him to cough the ball up. The offense appeared sluggish and out of sorts, here. There is plenty of blame to go around on this play/drive. Poor clock management, sluggish execution, lame duck play calling all factored into a sloppy drive. The Chiefs then missed a field goal on their ensuing possession, which should’ve put the Ravens down 20 points at the half.

Now, let’s flip to the second half, where after a stingy and well executed third quarter, the Ravens put themselves back into the game.

The Ravens defense turned the ball over twice in the third quarter, once on downs and once via Chuck Clark forced fumble. The Ravens responded with a field goal, following an Orlando Brown Jr. false start, which discouraged the Ravens from attempting to convert on fourth down.

On their next possession, the Ravens used a masterful drive, full of motion, options and play action to find their way into the end zone, making it a one score game.

1-10-KC 49 (2:57) (Shotgun) L.Jackson pass short right to M.Boykin ran ob at KC 41 for 8 yards.

2-2-KC 41 (2:31) M.Ingram right tackle to KC 37 for 4 yards (D.Wilson; A.Hitchens).

1-10-KC 37 (1:53) (Shotgun) L.Jackson scrambles right tackle to KC 32 for 5 yards (M.Danna).

2-5-KC 32 (1:12) (Shotgun) G.Edwards left guard to KC 8 for 24 yards (A.Hitchens; R.Fenton).

1-8-KC 8 (:24) (Shotgun) L.Jackson right end ran ob at KC 5 for 3 yards (J.Thornhill).

2-5-KC 5 (15:00) (Shotgun) L.Jackson pass short middle to N.Boyle for 5 yards, TOUCHDOWN. P12

As you can see, the Ravens dialed up four straight plays in KC territory incorporating motion at the snap, as well as some play action and option plays. This is when the Ravens offense is at it’s best. This drive had a sense of calmness, where the Ravens had clear intentions behind each play. On the Ravens final meaningful possession, they had less clear intentions, didn’t utilize motion and seemed out of sorts. The receivers ran routes at half speed, and the Chiefs gladly allowed the Ravens to throw slant after slant, while the Ravens didn’t break a single tackle after the catch or generate any notable yards after the catch.

1-10-BLT 25 (8:14) (Shotgun) L.Jackson pass incomplete short middle to M.Ingram (A.Hitchens).
PENALTY on KC-D.Wilson, Unnecessary Roughness, 15 yards, enforced at BLT 25 - No Play.

1-10-BLT 40 (8:10) (Shotgun) L.Jackson pass short middle to J.Dobbins to KC 41 for 19 yards (T.Mathieu).

1-10-KC 41 (7:48) (No Huddle, Shotgun) L.Jackson pass incomplete deep right to M.Brown (C.Ward).

2-10-KC 41 (7:42) (Shotgun) L.Jackson scrambles left end pushed ob at KC 35 for 6 yards (R.Fenton).
PENALTY on KC-C.Jones, Illegal Use of Hands, 5 yards, enforced at KC 35.

1-10-KC 30 (7:20) (Shotgun) L.Jackson pass short middle to J.Dobbins to KC 24 for 6 yards (R.Fenton).

2-4-KC 24 (6:57) (No Huddle, Shotgun) L.Jackson pass short middle to M.Brown to KC 18 for 6 yards (C.Ward).

1-10-KC 17 (6:39) (No Huddle, Shotgun) L.Jackson pass short middle to M.Andrews to KC 13 for 4 yards (D.Sorensen).

2-6-KC 13 (6:19) (No Huddle, Shotgun) L.Jackson sacked at KC 21 for -8 yards (B.Niemann).

3-14-KC 21 (5:35) (Shotgun) L.Jackson sacked at KC 31 for -10 yards (F.Clark).

4-24-KC 31 (4:55) (Shotgun) L.Jackson pass incomplete deep left to M.Boykin.

As is now made abundantly evident, the contrast between the final Ravens scoring drive and their final meaningful drive is the difference between an efficient, determined offense with purpose — or a sluggish, half hearted effort. There’s also a severe lack of yards after the catch, as previously mentioned. Whether the Ravens offense became fatigued, unclear or both, taking the time to make substitutions and utilize motion, play action and various option concepts could certainly provide fruitful the next time the Ravens face a two score deficit in the second half. As things stand, the Ravens haven’t won a game when trailing at half time since Lamar Jackson took over at quarterback. Not that Joe Flacco’s Ravens were doing so with any consistency prior, but the proof is in the pudding.

While it’s easy to chalk up the Ravens failed comeback efforts on “a bad game”, when the theme persists, it’s time to examine why, then make the necessary changes. While one can certainly argue that time is of the essence, the Ravens need to sacrifice a few precious seconds in order to dial up more determined and daring passing concepts. Making substitutions might allow for receivers to be more fresh, as they seemed gassed by the mid way point of their final meaningful drive. Failing to use a timeout with three in their pocket also proved futile before the half, as the Ravens ended up turning the ball over.

John Harbaugh must improve his clock management when trailing to aid his players. With a quarterback who can create space to throw the ball away or scramble out of bounds, using timeouts in similar situations will buy the Ravens time to dial up more productive concepts offensively.

Additionally, slotting rookie speedster Devin Duvernay into a more hearty role could provide fruitful. Duvernay looks to provide the most juice after the catch and possesses home run hitting ability. James Proche also looks relatively smooth in punt returns. Both were known in college for their ability to to track the ball and make tough catches, as well as generate yards after the catch (more so Duvernay than the latter). Duvernay’s 93-yard kick return saw the fastest speed recorded of any Ravens ball carrier over the past two years. He also registered the third fastest speed of any ball carrier so far this season.

If the Ravens experiment with Duvernay and other options, finding that they’re unable to ignite the passing offense, they need to make a move before the trade deadline. If they want to continue running no huddle and dropping the motion/play action, then acquiring someone like Jamison Crowder, Curtis Samuel or another speedster who can create separation, then produce after the catch could prove helpful.

Luckily, the Ravens will go against three struggling teams consecutively as they look to tweak and improve the faults that the Chiefs exposed. After that, the Ravens will now have a week seven bye, allowing them to make the necessary changes to propel themselves into a position to make a serious post season run. If they don’t and are unable to learn from their mistakes, the Ravens feel destined to fall short of their goals, and won’t be able to knock their six year playoff win drought.

While it’s not time to panic or overreact to losing to the defending champions, it’s a gut check for the Ravens, who were humbled before a national audience in primetime.