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How to create a “new identity” on offense

It’s time to switch it up and break rhythm.

NFL: NOV 15 Ravens at Patriots Photo by Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

This week, Ravens offensive coordinator Greg Roman spoke about “forging a new identity” offensively. With Ronnie Stanley and Nick Boyle, two of the Ravens most talented and relied upon players, out for the season, the Ravens will need to reimagine their offense in the middle of the season.

Doing so, while the entire NFL is forced to partake in intensive protocol due to COVID-19 for the remainder of the season, proves to be a tall task — yet also a fun one.

Greg Roman has taken heat locally and nationally for a plethora of reasons, even dating back to a Week 2 win in Houston where the Ravens ran for well over 200 yards in a 17-point victory. Some criticism is well though and profound, most are irrelevant in noise, as so often happens in the “hot take” culture that the sports world has encapsulated today’s landscape.

Lamar Jackson made headlines when he said on “The Rich Eisen Show” that defenses have been calling out the Ravens plays. Many former NFL players and coaches have dismissed the significance of that, as I did initially. Most who believed it was a major issue thought that the Ravens concepts were the problem. While there are too many variables to factor allowing certainty, NFL Network’s Cynthia Freelund had quite an interesting tidbit.

“First, the number of plays Baltimore runs — and how they’re sequenced — is quite similar, season over season. As in, Call X on first down followed by Call Y second and so on, in such a way that is a very repeatable pattern from game to game and also from last season to this one. Sure there are some differences based on defensive looks, but even those follow a somewhat-regular pattern. Most teams have about a 25 percent occurrence of calling the same sequence over a four-game period; the Ravens are around 42 percent over their past four games.”

Freelund’s findings aren’t defined in terms of run or pass, or if it’s the exact same concepts in sequence. She also stated this wasn’t unique to this season. However, Jackson’s comment regarding defenses calling out tendencies makes a lot more sense now. It seems that Roman has grown comfortable in strings of play calling sequence, which defenses have certainly picked up on. This is why breaking tendencies could be paramount in the Ravens offense catching defenses off guard and creating chunk plays.

The Ravens rushing attack hasn’t been bad, by any means. In fact, it’s among the league’s best. However, it’s currently not generating outlier level efficiency like it did in 2019. The Ravens were the only team in football to generate positive EPA on handoffs in 2019. Now? Negative, although still consistently near the top of the league. DVOA? The Ravens are negative (-6.3%), which ranks 11th in the NFL, but isn’t helping their cause.

Why is this happening? The Ravens are down their three best run blockers from last season (Yanda, Ronnie Stanley and now Nick Boyle) and defensive minds have had an offseason to focus on stopping the Ravens, studying tape on what the Ravens did last year. It’s not a surprise that the Ravens ground attack isn’t lighting the league on fire with these considerations.

The Ravens rushing efforts on first down are bleeding their overall offensive efficiency at a staggering level. They are -20.8% DVOA on their first down rushing attempts, averaging 4.14 yards/carry on 1st-&-10. They’ve run the ball 135 times on first down, with only 12 first downs to show for it (9.02%). Those are back-breaking considering the volume, which is the eighth most attempts on first down in the NFL. Passing on first down? The Ravens have attempted the second fewest in the NFL, averaging 7.77 yards per pass attempt and converting 28 first downs (35.9%).

In summary, a tendency breaker would be to flip the script, opting to pass at a much higher rate on first down. The Ravens are currently running the ball on 63% of their first down calls, not including scrambles. That clip, combined with low efficiency and first down conversion rate, is hurting drives. Decreasing that number to even out around 50% would go a long way in breaking the sequencing established and sustaining drives.

Going further, the Ravens rushers on 1st-&-10 have the following production:

  • Gus Edwards: 41 carries, 200 yards (4.9 YPC), four first downs
  • J.K. Dobbins: 30 carries, 145 yards (4.8 YPC). three first downs
  • Mark Ingram: 32 carries, 117 yards (3.7 YPC), two first downs
  • Lamar Jackson: 39 carries- 128 yards (3.3 YPC), three first downs

Overall, it’s easy to see that Ingram and Jackson haven’t been successful on first down rushing attempts. Jackson averages 7.0 and 9.0 yards per carry on second and third down, with 22 first downs. Of Ingram’s 55 rushing attempts, 36 have come on first down (65%), whereas Dobbins (57%) and Edwards (54%) are more balanced. Mixing up the usage by utilizing Edwards and Dobbins more on early downs, then Ingram in later downs, would be a tendency breaker — while also decreasing rushing usage on first down towards more balance.

Of Ingram’s first down carriers, only 14 have had a positive EPA differential, according to Stathead. Rushing for two or three yards on first down negatively impacts the likelihood of the Ravens scoring points on that drive. Only if Ingram’s carries go for five yards, do they have any substantial benefit, which only 10 have so far. Coincidentally, Edwards and Dobbins are averaging nearly five yards per carry on first down.

This, by no means, is an opinion to throw the Ravens outstanding run game and concepts away, particularly against less skilled defenses later in the season. However, with the Ravens facing Tennessee, a team that stifled them in the postseason last year, as well as Pittsburgh, who the Lamar Jackson-led offenses haven’t defeated with ease, Roman would be wise to mix up his first down rushing dependence as well as who is carrying the ball when they do.

In regards to passing on first down, it would be effective to rely on screens and high percentage passes to ensure that the Ravens aren’t just throwing themselves into second and long. Also, mixing in more jet sweeps and jet sweep passes, end arounds and other concepts, would allow the Ravens to utilize blockers like Mark Andrews, Miles Boykin and Willie Snead IV on the perimeter, which could take some pressure off of the Ravens shuffled and inexperienced offensive line. This is especially prevalent considering the loss of Nick Boyle, who engaged ends and combo blocked on inside run concepts like a sixth offensive lineman as a staple of the Ravens offense.

As Freelund stated in her article, teams are forcing the Ravens to throw outside. Using more quick hitting concepts could lighten boxes and make defenders weary of creeping inside. They’ve had some fun screen and jet usage so far, but it’s time to really kick it into high gear.

In regards to the passing game, the Ravens primarily see single high coverage. According to Sports Info Solutions, the Ravens have seen this coverage breakdown so far:

  • Cover-0: 15 drop backs
  • Cover-1: 57 drop backs
  • Cover-2: 11 drop backs
  • Man-2: 2 drop backs
  • Cover-3: 101 drop backs
  • Cover-4: 78 drop backs
  • Cover-6: 6 drop backs
  • Screens: 19 drop backs

Removing screens, the Ravens see either cover-1 or cover-3 on 54% of their drop backs, with cover-4 encompassing a large portion of the rest (27%). Against single-high looks past the line of scrimmage, Jackson has been on target for 75.7% of those passes, which ranks 14th among passers with 50 such throws. Moving the threshold to 10 air yards per attempt and further, he ranks 19th, with 62.5% of his throws on target, although his completion percentage ranks eighth (57.1%). Those throws have only resulted in two touchdowns so far, and the Ravens need to start making defenses pay more in these situations, particularly against cover-3.

On throws 10 yards down the field against c-3, Jackson is 16/25 with 347 yards and a touchdown. His yards per attempt rank fifth in the NFL when throwing ten or more yards against cover-3. Considering that’s the most frequent coverage the Ravens face, it’s good to know that they’ve had success, but now is the time to capitalize.

The three concepts that the Ravens can use to put defenses in conflict are two that they don’t use frequently enough, scissors, smash and sail.

Scissors is typically a two-high beater that puts pressure on the deep half safety and corner to either trade off or run stride for stride with intersecting post and corner routes. The Ravens run so many combined in breaking routes, that scissors could be a tendency breaker, even though its typically run against two-high. Using Andrews and Marquise Brown, or Brown and Duvernay, would provide speed and athleticism to gain separation, but again, it’s more of a two-high beater. Adding a backside dig would create openings over the middle of the field. While it’s not traditional, it would be a welcome addition.

Scissors

The Ravens have run some of these intersecting concepts at times in big situations, but why save them? Get them going, open up the defense and then go back to some bread and butter calls.

More traditional cover-3 beaters are sail and smash. The Ravens run a bit of both, but it’s time to step it up, particularly the smash. Smash is a concept typically pairing a short hitch route on the perimeter with a slot or tight end corner route, like so:

Using Brown and Duvernay in the slots would provide a speed element to threaten defenses, who typically expect in breaking routes from the Ravens. The Ravens do run smash from time to time, but running smash-fade instead of the traditional corner route might create some easier throws for Lamar Jackson. Brown ran smash-fade at Oklahoma quite a bit.

Letting Brown work from the slot, where he can’t be pinned to the sideline like we saw J.C. Jackson do multiple times in New England, would allow him to use his separation ability — particularly if the Ravens are aligned to the opposite hash. Against a single high safety who can’t help, this would put a ton of stress on the corner. The smash doesn’t have to be mirrored, but I like the idea of running mirrored concepts to take the crutch of in breaking routes away and force defenses to respect the outside passing game.

Finally, sail works to the sideline and would take advantage of Brown running coverage off overtop. The Titans, particularly, don’t have strong linebacker coverage ability, which could open up some floated throws outside of linebacker play.

I think the key here is to make sure there isn’t a check down/safety valve underneath of it, as Jackson has had some trouble with defenders splitting two receivers when concepts worked too closely together, which have resulted in some interceptions.

Utilizing some of these three passing concepts more often, while forcing defenses to respect outside throws. If the Ravens can’t convert on them, it needs to be figured out why, now, so that they can make proper adjustments in 2021. If it’s an inability on Jackson’s behalf, that probably means he isn’t a long term option in terms of success. However, we’ve seen Jackson hit big outside throws on these concepts, they just aren’t called in high enough volume.

Generally dialing up comebacks has proven effective as well, which is probably the best route that Brown runs.

Andrews had a big catch on one against New England, and the Ravens would be wise to allow Brown to run his best route and target him at a higher frequency. His ability to work back to the ball is enabled by his light frame and COD skills. Using comeback route concepts would work against those single high looks that have only four underneath defenders in coverage.

Finally, the loss of Boyle can’t be overstated in terms of the option run game, or the run game overall. His ability to handle defensive ends one on one, as well as to work combo blocks in tandem with the tackles, was a pillar upon which the Ravens run game operated. Him being able to split block underneath on options and seal defenders inside allowing Jackson to skate to the sideline on option runs drove much of Jackson’s league record quarterback rushing performance last year.

Team have started to follow a rule: follow Boyle and Ricard and you’ll find the football.

Andrews, as much as he’s improved in the blocking department, can’t replicate what Boyle did. He isn’t the same physical or technical blocker. This means that a major aspect of what the Ravens do with the read option shouldn’t be as effective and thus needs to be dialed back, but not forgotten. The power read, or inverted veer, where Jackson has found so much success like his massive run against the Eagles, will still be a part of the offense, as it should. Boyle is a huge loss, but also takes away a crutch which could force the Ravens offense to work outside of it’s comfort zone.

Discomfort forces growth. That growth might take time, might look ugly, regardless, it’s on the way.

The Ravens will likely need to run more true handoffs and RPO rather than read options after losing Boyle. Greg Roman, if nothing else, has a wide and varying playbook in the run game. Using more zone concepts should help the offensive line move laterally and prevent stout fronts from beating them downhill, while allowing Dobbins and Edwards to work cutback lanes and make second level defenders miss, as they have done with consistency this year.

Andrews has an opportunity to show that he’s a complete tight end. He’s going to be asked more as a blocker than he has in his life, which should pay off in the long run. He’s done a much better job in terms of hand placement and sustaining blocks than he has before, but again, won’t sustain blocks on trench players like Boyle did. If he can find some success there, it will increase his monetary value going into a contract year, while proving or disproving that he’s truly among the league’s top tight ends.

Overall, if the Ravens take the following measures, their offense will forge a successful new identity:

  • Incorporate more jet sweeps and screens on first down.
  • Decrease the usage of Mark Ingram.
  • Mix up the usage of the three backs overall.
  • Sprinkle in some more deep single-high beaters like sail, smash and even scissors.
  • Use more quick passing and less read options to move past the loss of Nick Boyle.

These concepts already exist within the Ravens playbook. Scissors, smash, sail and screens are already there, they just need to be nurtured during the week and have wrinkles slowly added. To make a strong playoff push, the Ravens can’t expect to do the same things they were doing with Yanda, Stanley and Boyle. If they do, they will fail. They can’t line up and impose their will on opponents that know what’s coming without those three.

Greg Roman won AP Assistant Coach of the Year in his first year coordinating Baltimore’s offense nine months ago. Now, facing much scrutiny and criticism with a younger, less experienced group at his disposal, it’s time for him to prove that honor was worthy. Any training wheels for Jackson must come off, as this offense must run through him and ask him to be a complete passer.

As Urban Meyer said last week, trust is one of the pillars upon which team success is determined, alongside expectations and work ethic. The Ravens key offensive players have shown no lack of willingness to work. The expectation to be able to be straightforward and run the ball down opponents throats when they know it’s coming should be gone. Now, Roman must trust Jackson and vice versa.

Without “Truzz”, the Ravens will fall short of goals and clean out their lockers with equal to, or greater bitterness than they did following their disappointing playoff loss last year.