What was the Ravens' offensive identity? Their use of three-receiver sets says it all

In the past, Ravens coach John Harbaugh talked about how he wanted his offense to be multiple, capable of spreading teams out on one snap then smashing them in the mouth with the Power I on the next. This season, though, the Ravens used a certain personnel grouping on about three quarters of their snaps.

By my count, the Ravens used their 11 personnel grouping -- that is three wide receivers, a tight end and a running back -- on about 73 percent of their plays from scrimmage, not including field-goal attempts.

Don’t say I didn’t warn you. I wrote about their growing use of three-receiver sets back in training camp.

Early in the season, the Ravens tried to be multiple. Three-receiver sets were their favorite, but they used their 21 personnel with fullback Vonta Leach on the field with Ray Rice or Bernard Pierce on 95 snaps in their first six games. They used their 12 personnel -- two tight ends, two wide receivers and a back -- on 50 plays.

We saw a change, though, in Week 7, the first time the Ravens parked Leach on the sideline. They almost exclusively used their three-receiver sets to spread out the Pittsburgh Steelers. After the game, I asked players if that was going to become their offensive identity, that they were going to become a shotgun spread offense.

It turns out that I was onto something. Over the final 10 games of the season, including that first Steelers game, the Ravens used their 11 personnel on 86 percent of their offensive snaps. They used their 21 personnel on just 29 total snaps and only used two-tight-end sets when they were in their heavy package or near the goal line.

In Sunday’s season-ending 34-17 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals, the Ravens used their three-receiver personnel grouping on all but four of their offensive snaps.

The Ravens ranked 18th in the NFL with 244.4 passing yards per game, but they averaged just 83 rushing yards per game and finished 29th in the NFL in total offense. They called pass plays about 61 percent of the time.

Right or wrong, this is the direction the Ravens had been heading in all along. Quarterback Joe Flacco is most comfortable operating out of the shotgun with three wide receivers and a receiving tight end like Dennis Pitta stretching the field. Let’s not forget how much success the Ravens had doing that during the 2012 postseason.

Rarely did the Ravens dabble with something different.

After so much attention was paid to their use of the two-quarterback offense in their Week 12 win over the New York Jets, the Ravens did not use it once after that game and only used it for 13 total plays, 12 of which came in that Jets game.

Back in training camp I wrote about how theoretically the Ravens could use Rice and Pierce at the same time. That happened once, also against the Jets.

And despite a desire to spread defenses out, they shied away from four-receiver sets, only using four receivers four times this season and not once after Week 9.

We will see if the Ravens continue to rely on their three-receiver sets next season or if they will try to be more multiple. Their offensive personnel, which could experience major turnover this offseason, will be a big factor. But three-receiver sets have become the NFL’s most popular grouping and that isn’t likely to change.

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