It’s no secret the Ravens offense is one of the most dominate in the NFL. Last year they set the single-season rushing record, and Lamar Jackson himself broke Micheal Vick’s single-season rushing record by a quarterback. This season things may be a bit different, but it’s clear that wasn’t hasn’t changed is Baltimore’s ability to slice up opposing defenses like butter.
After watching the tape of their tout against the Browns in Week 1, what became clearer and clearer to me is that the Ravens were effective offensively not just because of the pure athleticism of their skill position guys, but by outsmarting the Browns’ defense time and time again.
Here are three plays that stood out in particular and why they’re significant.
Our first play comes with 1:34 left in the first quarter of this game. At this point, Baltimore is up 10-6 and has been running the ball and throwing short-to-medium passes all game. There was no preseason, so the only tape on each of these teams is this game right here, therefore the Browns have likely been mostly going off of what they expect Baltimore to do based off of the 2019 season, which is of course a lot of running.
The Ravens are lined up with only two wide receivers — Marquise Brown in the slot and Miles Boykin outside — who are both lined up on the left side of the field. TE Nick Boyle is lined up on the right side of the line and RB Gus Edwards is behind Lamar Jackson in the pistol formation. FB Patrick Ricard is put in motion before the start of the play and begins to come across from the left to right side. The Browns are in zone coverage and only have a single safety over the top.
Upon the snap, Jackson fakes a handoff to Edwards and three Browns’ defenders immediately bite on it, allowing Brown to fly right past them all with only one man to beat — the safety over top. Jackson takes the shot down the field, leading Brown to left as he gets his shoulder past the defender, and the pass is perfectly placed for an easy 47-yard gain.
The reason this play stand out to me is that Baltimore knows that Cleveland is prioritizing defending the run and short pass, which the Ravens did a lot of last season and had continued to do so far in this game up to this point. They recognize the single safety over the top and understand that the Browns will most likely be susceptible to a play-action play, which will leave Brown with much more room to operate.
The second play comes with 10:03 left in the 3rd quarter. Baltimore is up 24-6 at this point and have been nearly unstoppable up to this point. Before the snap they’re lined up five-out, with Jackson sitting in the shotgun by himself. Mark Andrews is lined up in the slot on the left side, and Willie Snead is lined up similarly on the right side and is going to run a corssing route over the middle. The Browns are sitting in man coverage with two safeties over top.
Jackson sends Devin Duvernay into motion pre-snap and will end up running behind Jackson as he snaps the ball. Andrews and Snead meet in the middle of the field and they both go towards the left side of the field with Snead going underneath and both of them have beaten their coverage. One of the safeties have came down to meet the middle and decides to cover Snead while his man struggles to keep up. This has effectively left Andrews open over the top against a smaller corner, and Jackson feeds him the perfect pass that his larger tight end can go grab for a 21-yard reception.
This his play stands out because it could’ve gone multiple ways depending on the decisions made by the safeties over the top. One goes to cover Brown on the deep ball and the other covers Snead on the cross, which left Andrews as the open target against a smaller defender. It effectively creates a mismatch that even if the safety had chosen to cover Andrews, Snead would’ve been wide open with a lot of room to operate on the left side of the field.
The third and final play comes with 7:54 left in the third quarter, the same drive as our last play and on the Browns’ 19 yard line. This time, Jackson is in the shotgun with J.K. Dobbins next to him. Boykin is the wideout on the left side while Snead, Brown, and Andrews are all lined up in the slot on the right side. Cleveland in man coverage with two safeties covering the end zone area.
Dobbins gets set in motion out to the left side and the play begins. Right away Andrews and Snead are set on crossing routes over the middle, and Snead instantly beats his man. The safety over the top doesn’t come to help because he’s too worried about Brown and the other defensive back comes down immediately to double Mark Andrews, who burned them just a few plays earlier. This results in a wide open Willie Snead, who Jackson quickly throws to for an easy 19-yard touchdown.
These decisions that the Browns’ defenders make are all informed by past plays. Brown and Andrews both had made multiple big catches throughout the game so far, meaning that the defenders are no longer willing to take their eyes off of them. Snead is deadly in the slot and after he blows past his man, nobody comes to help. Everything here is calculated pre-snap by the Ravens and even if Snead didn’t beat his man, there’s a good chance Jackson could’ve just used his legs and made a big play, because there wasn’t even a quarterback spy anywhere on the field.