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Evolving an evolution: Baltimore’s top scoring offense must continue to grow

After leading the NFL in scoring for the first time in franchise history, how the can the Ravens offense improve?

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NFL: FEB 01 NFL Honors Red Carpet Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

One year ago, the questions surrounding the viability of the Ravens offense were a hot topic.

Many doubted the ability of Lamar Jackson as the Ravens full time starter. Fast forward a season. The Ravens led the NFL in scoring during the 2019 regular season . . . and by quite a margin. In fact, only 10 teams reached 400 points scored in 2019, while the Ravens were the only team to reach 500.

It’s well documented how they did so. The Ravens ran the ball more, in more ways, than any team in the NFL. The multiplicity of their running game was similar to the 1997 classic kid’s film starring Robin Williams, Flubber.

Mad scientist Greg Roman’s run game was able to morph into any concept, from any personnel, at any time. They varied between zone and gap schemes on a weekly basis, able to attack their opponent with equal prowess depending on which scheme gave their opponent more trouble. The Ravens ran inside zone, duo, power, counter, bash, QB bash, read option, veer, inverted veer, outside zone, sweep, triple option and trap concepts throughout the season.

Roman also deployed motion heavily, which allowed the Ravens to gain a numbers advantage (equal or more blockers play side than defenders) consistently. Kyle Shanahan has also used a dizzying amount of motion concepts, which made the matchup between the 49ers and Ravens so interesting in Week 13 of 2019.

The multiplicity, nuance and moving parts of the Ravens offense forced opponents to play with infallible gap responsibility or be scorned. Even when teams were able to box the Ravens offense in, defenses often gave no more resistance than a fence to a rabbit, as Lamar Jackson’s ability to process defenders and space, accelerate and/or change direction so abruptly that the only fair comparison is Neo in The Matrix.

The combination of Jackson’s once-in-a-decade open field ability and elite ball handling, continuous motion, and unpredictable blocking schemes create a living nightmare for linebackers, safeties and corners in space.

The result is defenders either aggressively guessing where to attack, which is often futile, or being caught flat footed with their eyes in the wrong place. This left gaping holes for Mark Ingram and Gus Edwards, who spent the least and fourth-least time behind the line of scrimmage, on average, per carry. They get downhill in a hurry, while second level defenders are slow to fill gaps.

In summary, the Ravens rushing attack was multiple, diverse, complex and well-executed. Most importantly, their rushing attack was efficient. In fact, their rushing game was so efficient that it added more points per play than the passing offense of 15-20 other teams at any given time in 2019.

That, ladies and gentlemen, is the impact of Lamar Jackson and Greg Roman working in sync.

How can the Ravens offense improve in 2020?

A difficult question on the surface, how can one of the most efficient, successful and well rounded rushing attacks in NFL history improve? I have several thoughts:

1) Surviving the loss of Marshal Yanda

Yanda is irreplaceable. Pro Football Focus anointed Yanda the highest-graded pass blocking and run blocking right guard of the decade. By their WAR metric (wins above replacement, replacement being an absolutely average player) Yanda was the second-most impactful Raven of the past decade. Generating that level of impact as a right guard is downright mystifying.

The Ravens have been able to run behind their battering ram for years, particularly in the past two years with Jackson under center. Yanda allowed the Ravens to hide subpar play elsewhere, in both pass protection and the run game. Having Yanda allowed a common theme in pass protection — Yanda on an island, Ronnie Stanley on an island, Orlando Brown Jr. on an island, while Bozeman and Skura/Mekari double teamed the remaining pass rusher against a traditional four-man rush. The additions of Ben Bredeson, Tyre Phillips, D.J. Fluker, as well as shaping Ben Powers, put enough capital and “lottery tickets” to the spot, where it seems improbable that a quality starter doesn’t emerge in 2020. There will still likely be a substantial gap between Yanda and whoever that quality starter turns out to be, though.

2) Decreasing the dependency on Lamar Jackson’s legs, while maintaining the threat

Jackson has accrued nearly 1,000 carries (978, to be exact) dating back to his freshman year at Louisville. While around 49% of Jackson’s carries result in him sliding under contact, running out of bounds or a kneel (by my tally), the Ravens need Jackson, who led the NFL in QBR in 2019, fresh and healthy to achieve their ultimate goal. The problem is that Jackson is so damn effective between the tackles, it’s a disservice to entirely avoid using his arguably greatest skill.

The good news is that John Harbaugh has been brutally honest. Last year, he told us to take the over when asked if Jackson would exceed his 2018 carries total. This year, his sentiment was a little different. It should be.

While Jackson is only 23 years old, the Ravens, and Jackson, have long-term success in mind. Jackson has stated on multiple occasions that he aspires to bring multiple championships to Baltimore in the style of Tom Brady. The Ravens haven’t had a quarterback who draws so much attention. Attention to success, highlights and winning are profitable. The Ravens proved themselves and that their recipe is working. In turn, they would be best served to spend the 2020 regular season, especially the early portion, emphasizing the passing game and relying on their young running backs to carry the load.

Save Jackson’s superhuman ability on veers and bashes for when the games count more. Getting Justice Hill and J.K. Dobbins involved early in the season could prove fruitful in terms of keeping Mark Ingram fresh down the stretch, as well as giving them game experience to continue gaining confidence as well as weighing which concepts they find success in.

3) Expanding the use of and diversity of screen passes and jet motion

Lamar Jackson attempted 460 passes in 2019-20, including the playoff loss to the Titans. Only 20 of those 460 passes (4.3%) were screens or pop passes. The following twitter thread shows all 20 . . .

Of those 20 screens and pop passes:

  • Eight screens on first down, of which three were successful (gained 40% of yards to go on first down)
  • Nine screens on second down, of which six were successful (gained 60% of yards to go on second down)
  • One. . . only one screen on third down, which was successful (moved the chains on third or fourth down)
  • One pop pass on first down, which was successful
  • One pop pass on second down, which wasn’t successful
  • Zero pop passes on third or fourth down

Overall, 11 of the 20 screens and pop passes were successful. The Ravens attempted five screens in wins against Arizona and Buffalo, which constituted over half of their total screen attempts for the season. The Ravens had five games where they attempted no screens or pop passes, including their playoff loss to the Tennessee Titans.

Not attempting a single screen against the Titans was alarming for several reasons. First and foremost, they were wide open many times, as the Titans often elected to stack the box between the hashes, then play with cushion on the perimeter.

Marquise Brown was a terror on screen passes during his time at Oklahoma. While he clearly was never operating at full capacity in 2019, he averaged 6.4 yards of cushion at the snap according, which was the 17th highest amount of cushion given to any receiver in the NFL last season. That cushion allows for endless screens, which sucks the defense up, opening up vertical passing possibilities, as well as giving edge and perimeter defenders more to think about, which can open up lanes in the run game.

The Ravens also acquired two of college football’s best screen receivers from 2019 in Devin Duvernay and James Proche.

Jonas Shaffer of The Baltimore Sun detailed the two Ravens rookie receivers screen usage:

“According to Pro Football Focus, 42 of Duvernay’s 105 receptions (40%) last year came on screen passes, second most in the country. For Proche, it was 30 of 111 (27%), 11th most. They did not rack up 100-yard games by simply settling for screens, of course; Duvernay and Proche also had 12 and 11 catches, respectively, on deep targets, defined as passes of at least 20 air yards.”

These two weapons should help improve the screen game, but the major X-factor is Lamar Jackson. Jackson must be able to check into quick hitters and screens consistently when he sees cushion pre-snap. It didn’t appear that Jackson checking into screens was within the offense in 2019. One of my favorite expressions in all of football is, “take the low hanging fruit.” Another way of saying to take what the defense gives you. With Marquise Brown able to put in a full offseason of work, as well as the additions of Duvernay and Proche, this low hanging fruit could be quite juicy.

According to Pro Football Reference, the average starting QB attempted 51.3 screens in 2019. Jackson was well below half of that. Additionally, the Ravens used orb and jet motion over 15 times per game in 2019, yet hardly did the Ravens use jet sweeps, pop passes or screens with that motion.

All signs point to doubling, if not tripling the 15 screens the Ravens threw in 2019. A successful screen creates more conflict for perimeter and edge players, adding yet another thinking point when defending the Ravens lethal offensive attack.

4) Clean up their checkdown game

The Ravens had countless instances where their running backs, mainly Mark Ingram, get stuck in “no man’s land” between chipping or getting to the flats. Ingram particularly needs to get out of backfield to check down quicker, while Jackson also needs to be quicker to check down and work underneath. Former NFL quarterback J.T. O’Sullivan does a great job examining that aspect further in his “QB School” video.

These four aspects are major ways that the NFL’s top scoring offense from 2019 can move forward and continue to shock the world in 2020. There are a few other factors, such as Lamar Jackson being a more consistent deep passer. Jackson has made major strides in his mechanics, with room still to grow.

Jackson is undoubtedly working on the deep ball, as well as “the Tom Brady stuff.” Jackson referred time the mental side of playing QB as such, which is good news for the potential increase in screen usage and diversity in 2020.

The Ravens have invested heavily in their data and analytics department, which has rumored to involve Warren Sharp, a well-respected football analytics guru. In Sharp’s 350- page 2020 NFL Preview (amazing read, I’d highly recommend), he pointed out a few areas the Ravens can easily take advantage of their opponent. One of these is continuing running the ball against light boxes (six defenders or less), something the Ravens did only 28% of the time on such occasions in their playoff defeat against the Titans.

There were some games in which defenses played the Ravens differently. Week 3 vs. KC, Week 4 vs.the Browns, Week 5 vs. Pittsburgh, Week 12 vs. the Rams, Week 13 vs. the 49ers, and Week 15 vs. the Jets were six games where opposing defenses kept six or fewer defenders in the box on at least 30% of the Ravens’ offensive snaps. The Ravens made them pay. They ran the ball on 55% of their snaps when facing boxes of six or fewer and averaged 7.2 YPA with a 72% success rate.

But in the playoffs, things were different. The Titans put six or fewer defenders in the box on 45% of early downs through three quarters. This is well above average, and yet the Ravens did not make them pay.

Against six or fewer box defenders, the Ravens ran the ball just 28% of the time. These runs gained a staggering 8.0 YPC and a 67% success rate. But they passed the ball 72% of the time. And with few box defenders and extra men in coverage, the Ravens’ passing attack struggled. Jackson went 11/23 for just 4.2 YPA. He recorded a 57.0 passer rating and just a 45% success rate.

Even if you exclude all QB runs: against defenses that chose to use six or fewer box defenders at least 25% of the time, the Ravens had run the ball 40% of the time for 5.8 YPC and a 67% success rate on the season.

While there are many improvements to be made, the Ravens have already made major strides to become an offensive juggernaut. With such an intricate offense that includes a wide ranging diversity of concepts, motions while potentially being the only NFL offense without a single starter under 30. Luckily, they have a mad scientist and the 2019 NFL Assistant Coach of the Year in Greg Roman at the helm.

The Ravens offense is in good hands and should maintain their level of dominance with just a few tweaks. While Baltimore’s offense isn’t the NFL’s shiny new toy anymore, it’s still just as scary to defend and could be even scarier in 2020.