John Harbaugh has called the Ravens’ rushing offense one of the best in NFL history. Lamar Jackson has talked up the receivers who could keep opposing defenses on their toes and out of the box. And Greg Roman — well, he’s at once uncertain of what this offense can do in 2021 and excited that it might be a lot more capable than it was in 2020.
Three days into training camp, Roman’s attack is still embryonic. Every day is a “new chapter in a book,” he said Friday, and what looks good this week might come out bad next week, when padded practices begin. But what looked bad in January might also be good by September. Roman recalled watching practice recently and thinking to himself: “Uh, wow. This is going to be fun.”
“Training camp is really a time when we’ve got to create an identity on offense,” he said after practice Friday, in his first news conference since the NFL draft. “I think our first couple of days, the players have done a great job of starting to build that foundation, and every year, you’ve got to start over at square one. If you’re good at something the previous year, you can’t just assume, ‘Oh, we’re going to be good at this.’ You’ve got to start off with the real basics every single year.”
With quarterback Lamar Jackson yet to take a snap in camp, still sidelined by a positive coronavirus test, it’s impossible to divine the details of what Roman’s third offense in Baltimore will look like. The team has a “method of communication” with Jackson, Roman said, but how much Jackson’s absorbed away from the facility — and how far behind he might be when he returns, likely late next week — is unclear.
Jackson is the fulcrum of the offense. Whatever Roman builds will be with his quarterback’s arm, legs and football brain in mind. But as the Ravens look to improve on a 2020 season in which their offense dropped to 11th in overall efficiency, according to Football Outsiders, a tumble from a first-place 2019, their play-caller has some ideas.
“I think we’ve got a good plan,” Roman said. “And we’re glad we got some time this year to kind of practice that and really get a feel for us. We’ve got some new pieces we’re really excited about. And we’re looking forward to building it day to day.”
Here’s what that might look like.
Spread the wealth
Ravens quarterbacks finished with the fewest completions (256) and fewest pass attempts (405) in the NFL last season. Ravens running backs didn’t take more than their share, either. The team’s backs caught just 47 passes for 364 yards and a touchdown last season; only the Tennessee Titans’ backfield had fewer receptions (38).
It wasn’t like the offense asked them to stay in and block every play, either. According to Sports Info Solutions, Ravens running backs last season were targeted on just 15.1% of their routes, the NFL’s lowest rate. Several teams’ backfields finished with close to double that share of targets.
Roman wants that to change. J.K. Dobbins could be the man to make it so. As a rookie, Dobbins was a dynamic, elusive runner but an inconsistent receiver, with drops occasionally marring the few targets he did get out of the backfield. The 2020 second-round pick finished with 18 catches on 24 targets for 120 yards.
In Year 2, Dobbins has looked more assured in both his route running and pass catching. On Wednesday, the first day of camp, he slipped past Tyus Bowser, one of the NFL’s top outside linebackers in pass coverage, for a tight-window catch down the seam. On Friday, Dobbins caught a swing pass in stride, turned the corner and accelerated down the right sideline.
“He never really caught the ball much in college,” Roman said. “Last year was such a strange year where we didn’t really have this kind of time to invest in it. … We are definitely trying to get our running backs more involved in the passing game. So he’s doing a good job with it. He’s making good progress.”
Big or small
In 2019, the Ravens could line up with five receivers split out wide and dominate. Or they could send out three tight ends and six offensive linemen and dominate. It didn’t seem to matter how they wanted to run the ball or pass the ball; with Jackson in command and an elite offensive line protecting him, the Ravens would get their way.
That changed last year. As defenses adjusted and the Ravens’ offensive line retooled, bright spots dimmed quickly. Where Jackson and the offense had thrived in 2019, they instead found frustration in 2020. In formations with empty backfields, for instance, the Ravens went from averaging 8.2 yards per play to just 4.4 last season.
After a busy offseason, Roman’s early-season tendencies will hint at where he thinks this offense is best equipped. In “22” personnel last season (two backs, two tight ends and one wide receiver), the Ravens had the NFL’s highest success rate on designed runs. But in “11” personnel (one running back, one tight end and three wide receivers), the Ravens averaged an NFL-high 6.7 yards on designed runs.
One grouping invites defenses into the box for a war of attrition. The other spreads them out against a speedy Ravens attack. With the team’s hoped-for upgrades along the offensive line and at wide receiver, Roman’s voluminous playbook probably won’t be due for a downsizing.
“It’s always good to have options,” Roman said. “If we want to spread them out and play that style of game, we’re definitely going to do that. But we also want them to worry about having to deal with these other possible personnel groups that we could use as well. So they can’t really just home in and zone in on, ‘Man, when they’re in this personnel, we’ve got them. And that’s all they do, and we know how to minimize them.’ So we’re really working hard to try to develop.”
Find a way
When defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale was asked Friday about outside linebacker Jaylon Ferguson’s progress, he said he’d withhold his evaluation until the pads come on. When Roman was asked about the left guard battle, he said much the same thing.
As the Ravens head into Saturday night’s open practice at M&T Bank Stadium, their training camp has produced only potential stars, not sure-thing breakout sensations. The team is still six weeks and three preseason games away from Week 1. Which means Roman isn’t looking for players who fit in his offense so much as he is players he can build his offense for.
“One of the messages to the players is, if you do something well, we’re going to use you,” he said. “I really don’t care if we have a 500 personnel group. If guys do things well, we’re going to find a way to use that skill set and go with that. So we’re trying to develop every guy every day in every way.”
Along the offensive line, that could mean developing linemen better suited for the inside-zone runs the Ravens used more of in 2019. At tight end, that could mean making space on the 53-man roster for newcomer Josh Oliver, an athletic target over the middle. At wide receiver, that could mean more outside-the-numbers throws for Sammy Watkins, who shined again Friday, and more snaps for James Proche II, who’s impressed coaches in his second year. In the playbook, that could mean more under-center looks and run-pass options.
It’s too early to say, especially with Jackson, the Ravens’ leader, missing in action. But Roman still has the time to not only imagine what’s possible but also figure out what’s doable.
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“It’s a day-to-day process for us, and as far as expanding our profile, I definitely think there’s some new things we’ll do,” he said. “But there’s a lot of things that we haven’t done that we’re going to open up that chapter of the playbook [to] now, in other words. So I think it’s going to open up our playbook a little bit more. We want to have a good variety of things that we do, present a lot of problems for a defense. And I think these guys, from what I’ve seen so far, are definitely going to allow us to do that.”