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To advance past the AFC, Baltimore must overcome Must-Pass situations

Super Bowl XLVII - Baltimore Ravens v San Francisco 49ers

Entering the 2022 NFL preseason, Ravens general manager Eric DeCosta has assembled a nearly complete contender. Baltimore appears to be banking on an old-fashioned blueprint, centered on a dominant rush offense, opportunistic defense and excellent special teams. Their roster boasts the ingredients necessary to gash defenses with a stable of efficient backs behind an improved blocking unit, suffocate opposing offenses with an imposing front and utilize ballhawks to force takeaways in the secondary.

The Ravens are the current favorites to win the AFC North division. Head Coach John Harbaugh has reached the postseason with nine of his 14 squads. Barring another campaign with historically unfortunate injury luck, Baltimore is well equipped to stack regular season wins. However, postseason success has been elusive for the club since 2012, in part due to struggles in must-pass playoff situations.

The modern NFL has become a full blown passing league. Analysts content that a top passing offense is a prerequisite for Super Bowl glory. The most common denominator between championship teams over the past decade is an elite pass offense. Even Harbaugh’s 2012 Ravens exemplify this trend, they passed for 1,102 yards compared to 539 rush yards during their magical playoff run.

It is not unreasonable to believe the postseason differs from the regular season. A combination of tougher competition and hyper-focused game planning from opposing defensive coordinators can lead to negative game scripts where the offense is put in position to chase points more often than they are in the regular season. Unfavorable bounces, weather and other uncontrollable factors can exacerbate the issue in a game of inches.

Championship caliber teams require balance and versatility, not stubborn one-dimensional identities. Offenses must be able to put points on the scoreboard despite talented and disciplined playoff defenses who scheme away offense’s first and second preferred options. Rumbling though three or four consecutive, bonafide contenders on the way to the Lombardi trophy, without facing the adversity of must-pass situations, seems rather unlikely considering the loaded AFC and NFL landscape.

Strategically, designing an offense around Lamar Jackson’s unique skillset was wise. Since his insertion as the starting quarterback during the 2018 season, Jackson has been the catalyst for historic rushing output. No matter the talent of the blockers in front of him, or the running backs beside and behind him, Lamar’s dynamic abilities have generated league leading run offenses.

Jackson alone created numerical advantages and an outlier scheme posed unique challenges to defenses. Offensive coordinator Greg Roman exploited these factors to the fullest during Lamar’s 2019 MVP season. Roman used the threat of the run to produce an extraordinarily efficient pass offense. Yet after an exhilarating 12-game win streak, the offense failed to eclipse 12 points when they finally encountered their first must-pass game script against Tennessee in the playoffs.

Opponents have had ample time to find counters to Roman’s inventive tight-end based scheme. Teams with Pro Bowl caliber safeties, including the Chargers, Titans, Steelers, Bills and Bengals, have been able to neutralize the Ravens rushing and middle of the field passing proficiency.

Tactically, the numerical advantages provided by Lamar can swing to the defense’s favor if the Ravens do not have the personnel to threaten the deep boundaries of the field. Defense, at it’s core, boils down to numbers. Every one-dimensional scheme can be conquered if the defense deploys their personnel properly. Evolution is the key to sustainable success in the NFL.

Baltimore’s current 2022 depth chart features All-Pro tight end Mark Andrews, ascending split end Rashod Bateman, reliable slot man James Proche and rookie move tight end Isaiah Likely. This quartet is capable of thriving when coupled with the Ravens run game. Nonetheless, the absence of flanker Marquise Brown will be apparent if and when Baltimore runs up against a must-pass game script in the single elimination tournament.

Flooding the middle of the field with defenders is possible and effective if the defense does not respect the deep, outside the numbers passing game.

Perhaps assistant coaches Tee Martin and Keith Williams can propel receivers Devin Duvernay and Tylan Wallace to maximize their talent. Considering the extreme emphasis placed on quality depth by the Ravens Way philosophy, it seems more than likely DeCosta will acquire an additional wideout before Week 1, the November 1st trade deadline, or both. Rostering only four drafted receivers for the rigors of a 17-game regular season is quite risky, even for a run first team.

Maybe more importantly, the coaching staff needs a plan to overcome must-pass situations. Given the unpredictable and sometimes random nature of the game, it would be hubristic to assume Baltimore will never be forced into position to pass when the defense is expecting the pass.

There is more than one way to win football contests. The Ravens regular season results since 2018 are a prime example of this fact. Nevertheless, entering the postseason gauntlet with a glaring weakness at what is considered to be the most important phase of the game is irrational. Baltimore does not need to reinvent their offense, but they do need to develop a viable plan C for matchups when their run game and primary receivers are not clicking.

Solving the must-pass problem through a combination of personnel and play design is essential in 2022. If the Ravens are unable to overcome these pressurized, nearly inevitable situations, their unconventional zig-zag offensive experiment may die an unceremonious death next January.