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Ravens film study: How play-action is powering Lamar Jackson and a big-play passing attack

In their most convincing win of the season, the Ravens needed a controversial carry to jet past the 100-yard rushing mark. They averaged just 3.4 yards per attempt. Their longest run Sunday went for 11 yards. And yet it did not matter that the Denver Broncos could stop the run. They still couldn’t stop what happened after the run fakes.

Over the past two years, the Ravens have been happy to be the NFL’s most run-heavy team. Four games into the 2021 season, with their ground-game dominance diminished, the Ravens have been just as happy to be one of the NFL’s most play-action-heavy teams. They have taken the threat of the run and weaponized it to levels unseen in Baltimore.

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Proof of concept is in every Lamar Jackson stat line. In the 23-7 win in Denver, he finished 22-for-37 for a season-high 316 yards. The week before, in a dramatic victory over the Detroit Lions, he was 16-for-31 for 287 yards. The games marked just the second and third times in Jackson’s career that he passed for over 250 yards on a day when the Ravens rushed for fewer than 150.

Jackson’s technical improvements and an upgraded receiving corps explain part of the Ravens’ recent passing boom. But so does their reliance on run fakes. Research in recent years has found that rushing success and play-action frequency have almost no bearing on play-action success. The analytically inclined Ravens seem determined to put both theories to the test.

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According to Sports Info Solutions, the Ravens have used play-action on 36.5% of Jackson’s drop-backs this season, for an NFL-high 54 attempts overall. No one got a higher share last season than the Green Bay Packers’ Aaron Rodgers, who used play-action on 34.7% of his drop-backs. With every run fake supercharging the Ravens’ passing attack and fortifying their pass protection, defenses have been caught between two impulses: Stop Jackson as a runner, or worry about him more as a passer?

“Our offensive coordinator [Greg Roman], the offensive side of the ball, they did a lot of good things this offseason to be able to self-scout and figure out how to be better, and it’s been working,” defensive end Calais Campbell said Sunday of the Ravens’ play-action success. “Seeing Lamar throw the ball as well as he has this year, it’s fun to see, and I feel like we’re just getting started. We’re just starting to get our confidence and our groove in figuring out our identity for the season.”

Denver’s star-studded secondary was as good a litmus test as the Ravens will find this season. The Broncos had allowed 162.3 passing yards per game over their first three games, holding the New York Giants, Jacksonville Jaguars and New York Jets to an NFL-low completion rate (52.4%). Jackson surpassed both marks Sunday on play-action designs alone, finishing 13-for-18 for 167 yards.

About the only thing Jackson hasn’t done off a run fake this year is throw for a touchdown. Everything else has been optimal. On his 54 play-action drop-backs, he’s completed 72.2% of his passes for 542 yards — a remarkable 10 yards per attempt — and no interceptions.

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According to SIS, Jackson is averaging 0.41 expected points added per play-action pass, a measure of efficiency that accounts for situational factors such as down, distance and field position. By comparison, Jackson averaged 0.33 EPA per pass during his record-breaking NFL Most Valuable Player season two years ago.

Without run fakes, Jackson’s production this season has been more volatile. His passer rating drops from 104.1 to 78.0, and his accuracy falls to 51.4%. He’s thrown for four touchdowns on normal drop-backs, including his 49-yard strike Sunday to wide receiver Marquise “Hollywood” Brown, but he’s also had three interceptions.

It’s no surprise that the Ravens have embraced play-action as a power-up. All of the NFL’s best offenses do. What distinguishes the Ravens’ execution this year is not only their play-calling but also their playbook. In Jackson’s first two years as a starter, the Ravens used play-action on 30.3% and 31.9% of his drop-backs, respectively. In becoming even more dependent this year, they’ve attempted more play-action passes on first and second down than non-play-action passes.

Maybe just as important, the Ravens’ staff has made some of their passing schemes look more like their running schemes — until they don’t. Despite injuries up front, Jackson hasn’t been sacked on a play-action drop-back, and he’s been pressured on just 16.7% of those drop-backs overall. Opposing defenses have seemed so committed to executing their run fits that they seldom breach the pocket.

“Our O-line does a great job,” Jackson, who’s fifth in the NFL in yards per attempt (8.7) among qualified passers, said Sunday. “Our running backs do a great job of running the ball, so I feel like that’s why it’s so effective. When I’m dropping back, the linebackers are running up, thinking it’s a run, and I come back, play-action, guys are open, guys flying around, and our O-line is holding their own, blocking. That’s why it’s successful.”

With Rashod Bateman and Miles Boykin returning to action soon, the Ravens’ challenge will be maximizing their wide receiver talent without compromising their play-action formula. Fullback Patrick Ricard has been on the field for all but 10 of the Ravens’ play-action passes, according to SIS, helping to juice Jackson’s passer rating even higher (109.1).

His presnap motion and on-field presence might help Jackson sell a run fake, but his involvement also usually means the Ravens are down a potential receiver. With five linemen (and maybe one tight end) in pass protection, and with Ricard and a running back stuck near the line of scrimmage, Jackson sometimes has only two or three targets downfield to choose from.

That hasn’t been an issue yet. But NFL defenses adjust in real time, and where the Broncos fell short Sunday, the Colts might overcompensate next week. If Indianapolis’ biggest worry Monday night is the threat of the run fake, though, the Ravens probably won’t mind running and running until they’re stopped. Just like they used to.

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“I think it’s important to be able to win multiple ways and whatever is required,” Campbell said. “We know if we have to throw the ball for 300 yards, we can. If teams are going to stack the box and make it hard on us to run, which is good football, we know that Lamar can get the job done.”

Week 5

COLTS@RAVENS

Monday, 8:15 p.m.

TV: ESPN Radio: 97.9 FM, 1090 AM

Line: Ravens by 7

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