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Ravens under center offensive attack could take Raiders, NFL by surprise

Baltimore has quietly installed a new offense that they haven’t put on tape yet

To start the 2018 regular season, Marty Morhinweg was the offensive coordinator and Joe Flacco was the starting quarterback for the Baltimore Ravens. Lamar Jackson took over quarterback duties following an injury to Flacco’s hip. The results could be described many ways: electric, exciting. . . but also erratic.

Baltimore deployed a service academy style run game using option runs, play action passes and RPO’s at will. Jackson’s drop back passing game wasn’t consistently sharp. There were missed throws on screens and other quick/short/timing throws. Jackson also made throws that inspired confidence in his future prospects as a franchise quarterback, while clearly lacking consistency. Baltimore’s offense fizzled out and failed to gain any traction in a Wild Card matchup with the Los Angeles Chargers, an opponent who already saw the Ravens newfangled yet limited offensive packages two weeks prior. The Ravens offense failed to fully comeback in the second half, ultimately losing the game by one score. There was a tangible excitement about what the Ravens achieved with Jackson at quarterback, while also an enigma surrounded how effective Jackson could be in true passing situations.

The Ravens spent deliberately excessive amounts of time in the 2019 offseason laying the groundwork on their passing game. With Greg Roman promoted to offensive coordinator and Lamar Jackson coming off of an exhilarating yet erratic eight game stretch after taking over quarterback duties for an injured Joe Flacco, the Ravens had work to do. They devoted an exceptional amount of time specifically working on red zone and goal-to-go passing situations. In turn, this became Baltimore’s bread and butter. The Ravens second-year quarterback led the NFL in passing touchdowns despite sitting out a significant portion of the year in blowouts of the opposition and also being relieved of starting duties to rest ahead of the playoffs in their final game. Jackson threw 36 touchdowns in the 2019 regular season, including 24 thrown in the red zone without a single interception.

This was, of course, paired with the most prolific rushing attack in NFL history running for a record 3,296 yards. However, the Tennessee Titans exposed the Ravens lack of perimeter receiving threats and general lack of confidence throwing outside the numbers. Baltimore did a great job equipping then rehearsing themselves to throw the ball over the middle of the field in marriage with their run game. They didn’t have enough time nor the personnel to consistently take advantage of defenses that forced them to throw to the perimeter. Baltimore ultimately fell short in the playoffs again, losing at home in the Divisional Round after earning the first AFC No. 1 seed in the franchise history.

In 2020, Baltimore expected Miles Boykin to take a leap forward while adding Devin Duvernay to complement Marquise Brown and Willie Snead IV. Boykin, a towering adonis who set the NFL combine on fire, was supposed to become the boundary threat that could open up the Ravens passing game.

COVID-19 had other plans, unfortunately. Baltimore anticipated having an offseason to get Boykin, Duvernay, Brown and company reps galore. Instead, they were hampered by limited interaction in the facility, no preseason and endless uncertainty surrounding the state of the world, much less football. The regular season rolled around and Baltimore made no progress advancing their boundary passing game.

Only one receiver (Marquise Brown) caught double digit passes from outside receiver alignments in 2020. For reference, he was the only Ravens receiver to rank in the top 75 in targets or receptions from outside alignments. In the Ravens two playoff games in 2021, Lamar Jackson only targeted outside receivers five times. In fact, since the beginning of 2019, Jackson has thrown only 7/62 touchdowns to outside receivers. It’s not hard to see that Baltimore fails to threaten defenses with their outside receivers.

This isn’t to say that Jackson struggles to throw to that area of the field, either. Jackson has thrown 20 touchdowns to six interceptions when throwing outside the numbers over the last two years. Baltimore has simply lacked the personnel and confidence to threaten defenses with players that are lined up on the outside.

Fast forward to the 2021 offseason. Eric DeCosta signed Sammy Watkins then drafted Rashod Bateman and Tylan Wallace to bolster the Ravens perimeter receiving group. Each receiver (Bateman and Wallace with their respective college teams) when targeted from outside alignments over the last two years:

  • Watkins: 36/56, 412 yards 2 TD’s.
  • Bateman: 58/87, 1,118 yards, 9 TD’s.
  • Wallace: 97/154, 1,497 yards, 10 TD’s.

Those three combined with Marquise Brown present a much more formidable group of athletic, nuanced perimeter receiving weapons to deploy in the Ravens passing offense. While Bateman played mostly in the slot throughout his COVID-19 shortened 2020 season in Minnesota, he was probably the most prolific outside receiver not named DeVonta Smith in all of college football in 2019. Here are Bateman’s 2019 ranks among 191 FBS receivers with at least 35 receptions in boundary alignments.

  • Points earned: 5th.
  • Points earned per route: 2nd.
  • EPA: 7th.
  • EPA/target: 4th.
  • Yards/route run: 3rd.
  • Yards/target: 3rd.
  • Missed and forced tackles/reception: 17th.

With fortifications on the outside, Greg Roman has also stated his desire to add another element to the Ravens offensive tool belt.

In a question-and-answer conference call with season-ticket holders, Roman said “the cat’s out of the bag now” when asked if Jackson would move under center more in 2021. “That is definitely going to be a part of what we do this year — the percentage of which I cannot state at this point,” Roman said. “I don’t know the extent of it. But we are working on it and evaluating it every day.” Since taking over as the Ravens’ starting quarterback midway through the 2018 season, Jackson has taken the fewest snaps under center (127) among quarterbacks with at least 10 starts. Last season, Jackson was under center for 4% of his snaps (36 out of 889). The Ravens could shift him under center more this season to take advantage of his ball fakes. “It’s something we will certainly use from time to time, some games more than others,” Roman said. “I believe it’s a very important part in the development of a quarterback from a forward standpoint.”

The Ravens are no stranger to teams that rely on heavy under center outside zone rushing attacks that run boot play action off of them. Particularly, the Browns and Titans, two teams that the Ravens have played seven times since the start of 2019, utilize wide zone and boot offenses. Similarly, the Los Angeles Rams and Minnesota Vikings deploy those same concepts with heavy usage.

Cleveland and Tennessee’s ranks from under center in 2020:

  • Drop backs: Cleveland fourth (183), Tennessee fifth (182).
  • Passing touchdowns: Cleveland fourth (13), Tennessee eighth (9).
  • Passing EPA: Cleveland eighth (26.58), Tennessee first (49.22).
  • Rushing attempts: Cleveland second (416), Tennessee first (435).
  • Rushing points earned: Cleveland second (44.4), Tennessee first (49.03)

In contrast, Baltimore, who has run for 1,458 more yards than any other team over the last two years, barely runs the ball from under center. Their 95 rushing attempts from under center are 56 less than any other team since the start of 2019.

After facing Cleveland and Tennessee seven times and watching the way that they’re able to create conflict by running outside zone then bootleg play action passes that force edge defenders to play with assignment discipline, the Ravens could stand to benefit from those concepts to add yet another element defenses are forced to account for with discipline.

While J.K. Dobbins injury doesn’t help, as his explosiveness and cut-back ability isn’t dissimilar from Dalvin Cook (who Dobbins trained with this offseason), Gus Edwards actually led the Ravens in outside zone carries in 2020, running the concept 21 times for 117 yards. Edwards ranked t-46th in outside zone rushing attempts in 2020, the only Raven to rank inside the top 80. For reference, Derrick Henry had 97 such attempts, while Kareem Hunt and Nick Chubb each had 43. Utilizing Edwards and Ty’Son Williams to create zone flow and get back side edge defenders to pick their poison between attempting to contain Lamar Jackson or allowing a cutback lane for running backs seems appealing to a team that simply hasn’t utilized those concepts often enough.

Aside from outside zone and bootlegs off of it, Baltimore spent a considerable chunk of training camp working in under center “pro style” passing concepts. Ravens fans should recall Joe Flacco using a five step drop back game to hit Derrick Mason on out routes early in his career. We saw a few throughout the preseason from Tyler Huntley.

Considering Baltimore’s offense sees a considerable amount of single high looks with soft coverage on the perimeter, quick timing routes from under center should attack the cushion that cornerbacks so often give because defenses put eight defenders in the box when they play single high against 12 or 22 personnel. If they choose not to, well, Baltimore can run the ball downhill with a more athletic and imposing offensive line.

The first team that will see Baltimore’s under center attack is the Las Vegas Raiders. Interestingly enough, Las Vegas struggled to defend those very concepts perhaps more than any other team in the league last year. Sports Info Solutions has a metric called Points Saved:

“Points Saved: The total of a player’s EPA responsibility while in coverage using the Total Points system that distributes credit among all players on the field for a given play (with positive numbers being good). Totals are scaled up to map to the average points scored or allowed on a team level, with the player’s snap count determining how much to adjust. For pass defenders, this includes accounting for pass rush, broken tackles, dropped interceptions, turnovers, and turnover returns.”

The Raiders ranked last in Points Saved when defending passes from under center in 2020, with a mark of -19.77. Only three teams had a negative score against such concepts, for reference. They also finished last in Points Saved per play (-0.155) and were fifth and seven in EPA allowed and EPA allowed per play when defending passes from under center. The Raiders have made significant changes, bringing in former Chargers Defensive Coordinator Gus Bradley to replace Paul Guenther.

Bradley’s Chargers unit ranked 10th in Points Saved (20.26), 18th in defensive EPA (7.33) and EPA per play allowed (0.6) when defending passes from under center. While Bradley could certainly have the Raiders unit more prepared to counter under center passing concepts, with Lamar Jackson having very little tape on drop backs from under center, Baltimore could take Las Vegas by surprise with a newly constructed pro style passing game.

Considering how much damage Ryan Tannehill and Baker Mayfield have been able to do with their legs on zone/boot flow, Lamar Jackson could certainly find plenty of grass to make the Raiders pay for having an undisciplined back side edge defender aggressively pursue the outside zone fake. This chain reaction could become more deadly for the Raiders defense if their deep third defenders freeze to keep Lamar Jackson in front of them, therefore blowing coverage and allowing explosive passing plays downfield.

While we haven’t seen many of these concepts with Lamar Jackson under center, his skillset and the fact that there’s limited tape on them could be a recipe for disaster for opposing defenses. Using these to attack one-on-one zone concepts and throw the ball to the perimeter, freeze back side defenders because of Lamar Jackson’s legs and add another element for opposing defenses to prepare for when playing Baltimore could all be spokes in the wheel for a Baltimore offense looking to have a more diverse and balanced attack. Greg Roman has dialed up a vicious power run game that forces front seven defenders to be extremely quick processors. Introducing elements of caution could prove to be the kiss of death for opponents, while providing Lamar Jackson with easy reps to utilize his athleticism and make simple split field reads on bootlegs that can help him establish rhythm throwing the football.

If Baker Mayfield and Ryan Tannehill have been able to lead offenses that utilize these concepts (which aren’t new by any means) successfully, then Baltimore should be able to replicate these under center and zone concepts with time and practice reps leading them to a change of pace that could help when they struggle against teams like the Chiefs, who have been able to thwart Baltimore’s pistol offense in the early goings of their last two matchups.

The use of an under center offense by Baltimore may be one of the most important, yet unheralded storylines ahead of the 2021 NFL season.

All statistics in this article were provided by Sports Info Solutions.