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Ravens film study: From Lamar Jackson’s use to the defense’s blitz rate, here’s what to watch in 2021

Every season has its surprises, but the Ravens’ identity this year probably won’t be one of them.

Offensive coordinator Greg Roman, entering the third year of his partnership with quarterback Lamar Jackson, wants to beat defenses up and run by them. Defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale has led the NFL in blitz rate in all three seasons he’s been in charge. And coach John Harbaugh, now in Year 14, will blend old-school thinking with new-school information as he seeks his second Super Bowl title.

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Even with continuity on the coaching staff, football strategy is never static. Players come and go, opponents rise and fall, tactics fail and succeed. What worked for the Ravens last year might not work this year, just as what might work in Week 1 against the Las Vegas Raiders might not work in Week 18 against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Change is constant, on both a micro and macro level.

With the help of Sports Info Solutions data — including expected points added, a measure of efficiency that accounts for situational factors such as down, distance and field position — and other analytics sources, here are four strategic storylines to follow this season:

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What comes first?

If the Ravens want a more balanced offense — indeed, if they want a more efficient offense — their transformation will have to start on first down. Nowhere were the team’s run-first tendencies more apparent.

In so-called neutral game scripts, when the score differential is within seven points, the Ravens had 76 drop-backs on first-and-10 last season: 63 drop-backs that resulted in a pass attempt or sack, according to SIS, and 13 that resulted in a scramble. They had nearly twice as many designed runs: 148 carries, not including quarterback kneel-downs.

The Ravens’ rushing offense wasn’t bad, by any means. The team averaged 4.6 yards per carry on first-and-10, which would’ve ranked among the top 10 ground attacks overall in the NFL last season. But that rate paled in comparison to the Ravens’ season-long rushing average (NFL-best 5.5 yards per carry) and was a far cry, efficiency-wise, from their passing offense.

On first-and-10 drop-backs last season, Jackson was 40-for-55 for 589 yards, three touchdowns and one interception, good for a 117.9 passer rating. Jackson averaged 0.31 expected points added per play, which ranked third in the NFL among quarterbacks with at least 50 attempts, behind only the New Orleans Saints’ Drew Brees and Miami Dolphins’ Ryan Fitzpatrick.

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By comparison, Jackson averaged 0.33 EPA per drop-back during his record-breaking NFL Most Valuable Player season two years ago. The Ravens’ EPA per play on their 148 carries last year, meanwhile, was in the red: minus-0.05. Even with the sample limited to Jackson and running backs J.K. Dobbins and Gus Edwards, their average EPA was just 0.03.

Jackson’s legs limit the risk of negative plays on drop-backs, too. While he took five sacks on first-and-10 pass plays last season, he also averaged 6.5 yards over 13 scrambles (0.16 EPA per play).

Every play has its own context. Sometimes the box is light on defenders. Sometimes the clock is running out. Sometimes it’s pouring rain. Sometimes the receivers are banged up. But given the Ravens’ offseason investment in their receiving corps, and Jackson’s growth as a passer, the path to a better offense starts early.

Inside track

No team ran for more yards (3,071) or had a higher rushing average last season than the Ravens. That doesn’t mean they could run it wherever they wanted.

On outside runs, according to SIS, they averaged 6.3 yards per carry. On off-tackle runs, they averaged 5.9 yards. On inside runs, however, they averaged just 4.3 yards. (All marks exclude quarterback scrambles and kneel-downs.)

As the Ravens enter their third season with Jackson as the team’s full-time starter, that rushing distribution could prove to be a quirk of Roman’s rushing offense. In 2019, when the Ravens set the NFL’s single-season rushing record and had by far the league’s most efficient running attack, they averaged just 4.1 yards per carry on inside runs.

But with the loss of the speedy Dobbins (torn ACL), and defenses ever more determined to keep the ball out of Jackson’s hands, the Ravens’ rushing success could depend on how well they pound the ball inside. Edwards and Ty’Son Williams, both hard-nosed runners, seem well suited for the task. Now the interior offensive line will have to show it’s up to the challenge.

Bradley Bozeman has impressive size for a center (6 feet 5, 325 pounds) and is one of the team’s more cerebral players. Right guard Kevin Zeitler has graded out as a solid to good run blocker for most of his career, according to Pro Football Focus. And between Ben Powers, Tyre Phillips and rookie Ben Cleveland, the Ravens should be able to find a decent starter at left guard.

That should embolden Roman to lean more on inside runs this season. In 2019, when the Ravens had Pro Bowl right guard Marshal Yanda anchoring the interior of their line, they ran inside on 35.1% of their designed runs. Last season, amid the team’s persistent struggles at right guard and center, that rate fell to 28.5%.

With Jackson at quarterback, the Ravens have a numbers advantage that other teams can only dream of. Defenses have to account for him as a runner, even on pass plays. But what’s true of the Ravens’ passing game is also what’s true of their running game: The more varied their attack can be, the more effective it should be.

To blitz, or not to blitz

The first time the Ravens faced Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen, in 2019, defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale blitzed him 31 times on 46 drop-backs, according to Pro-Football-Reference. And it worked. In a 24-17 Ravens win, Allen went 17-for-39 for 146 yards and one touchdown and was sacked six times.

Ahead of the teams’ playoff meeting in January, Martindale assured reporters that there was more in store.

“He knows that there’s going to be pressure, that’s for sure,” Martindale said of Allen. “That’s who we are. That’s what we’ve done.”

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And then, well, he didn’t. On 40 drop-backs last season, the Ravens blitzed Allen just 11 times. And that worked, too. In a 17-3 Bills win, Allen finished 23-for-37 for just 206 yards and a touchdown; his 5.57 yards per attempt were the third-lowest mark of his All-Pro 2020 season, including postseason play. Allen was also sacked twice and pressured on 17.5% of his drop-backs.

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The game exemplified a surprising contradiction of the Ravens’ 2020 defense, which finished ninth in overall efficiency, according to Football Outsiders. Despite leading the NFL in blitz rate (44.1%, according to PFR), Martindale’s unit was more effective with conservative play calls. When the Ravens sent five or more pass rushers, they ranked 18th in EPA per play. When they rushed four or fewer, they were second.

The Ravens should have the personnel to effectively modulate their aggressiveness this season. Cornerbacks Marlon Humphrey and Tavon Young and safeties Chuck Clark and DeShon Elliott are not only dependable in coverage but also effective blitzers. Inside linebacker Patrick Queen had three sacks as a rookie and has improved in pass defense. And outside linebackers Tyus Bowser, Odafe Oweh and Daelin Hayes can reliably drop into the flats as zone defenders.

Martindale’s early-season tendencies could be telling. With the signing of Calais Campbell and Derek Wolfe and the midseason trade for fellow defensive end Yannick Ngakoue, the Ravens’ blitz rate ended up falling by more than 10% from 2019 (54.9%). After losing outside linebacker Matthew Judon and Ngakoue in free agency this offseason, then adding Oweh and outside linebacker Justin Houston, the effectiveness of the Ravens’ four-man pressure packages remains a mystery.

Dime time

The Ravens have six cornerbacks and five safeties on their 53-man roster, which makes sense, considering the offenses they’re likely to face this year. Of the 14 opponents on the Ravens’ schedule, all but two used 11 personnel (one running back, one tight end and three wide receivers) on more than half of their snaps in 2020, according to Sharp Football Stats.

It takes power in numbers to defend the NFL’s modern spread attacks. The Cincinnati Bengals lined up in three-, four- or five-wide receiver sets over 80% of the time last season — then drafted wideout Ja’Marr Chase in the first round. Even the Minnesota Vikings, who had the lowest rate of 11 personnel use in the NFL last season (29%), still relied on it more than any other grouping.

The question for the Ravens becomes: How do you choose to defend it — with more size or more speed? They’ve taken different approaches over the past two years.

In 2019, the Ravens had a platoon system at linebacker — Josh Bynes, Patrick Onwuasor and L.J. Fort — and impressive depth in the secondary. With cornerback Jimmy Smith sometimes deployed as a safety and safety Chuck Clark sometimes lined up like an inside linebacker, the Ravens used dime personnel (six defensive backs) on 44% of their snaps, second-most in the NFL, according to Football Outsiders. The defense finished just 21st against the run but fourth against the pass and fifth overall in efficiency.

Last year, the Ravens were less exotic in their personnel use: 13th in dime, at 16%, far below their 2019 rate; 15th in nickel (five defensive backs), at 62%, a significant jump; and 20th in base (four defensive backs), at 21%, another notable jump. Perhaps not surprisingly, their efficiency against the run rose to 12th, while their efficiency against the pass fell to 10th.

Availability explains at least some of the big-picture changes. After cutting Earl Thomas in the preseason, the Ravens had only two safeties, Clark and Elliot, who were reliable every-down defenders, limiting their three-safety looks. Injuries to Young, Smith and cornerback Anthony Averett hurt the defense’s versatility. The emergence of Queen, and the solid rotation of inside linebackers next to him, also gave Martindale more options in nickel packages.

Now, after a relatively injury-free preseason, the Ravens can mix and match as they please. How often will Martindale want to get third-round pick Brandon Stephens’ speed on the field? How much will he trust inside linebacker Malik Harrison on obvious passing downs? What will he ask of Smith, one of the NFL’s top-rated cornerbacks when healthy last season, when he’s cleared to play? They’re the kind of questions any coordinator would be happy to wrestle with.

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