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Ravens film study: What seven plays could tell us about the 2020 season

The Ravens entered their season opener Sunday with one of the NFL’s most complete teams but no real sense of where they stood after a warped offseason. They left with a 38-6 win over the Cleveland Browns and a better idea of what comes next.

“It gives us a chance to really reset our direction a little bit and assess where we’re at and where we’re going and what we need to work on and things like that,” coach John Harbaugh said at his weekly news conference Monday. “We’re excited about that. You get an opportunity to really focus with just some good information. We’re very pleased with the win.”

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With the stars and coaches who returned from last season’s 14-2 team, it was not hard to imagine what the Ravens might look like in Week 1. Even with the surprises Sunday offered — most notably, some line struggles on both sides of the ball — the team’s standouts were predictable. Quarterback Lamar Jackson was the best player on the field, and the cornerbacks were unyielding.

Yet even with the Ravens’ offseason continuity, so much about the team has changed and will continue to change. Over four quarters Sunday, the Ravens hinted at what’s ahead. Seven plays, in particular — three on offense, three on defense and one on special teams — could be especially revelatory.

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Offense

1. Deep shots: Jackson entered this season eager to prove he could make all the throws. And what better way to prove your accuracy on deep balls and outside-the-numbers routes than a first-quarter play combining both?

Jackson will throw few passes this season prettier than his 47-yard, in-stride strike to wide receiver Marquise “Hollywood” Brown. The Ravens' play design made clear that they wanted a deep shot — their play-action called on seven blockers to stay home — and they got the matchup they wanted, too.

At the snap, Cleveland had eight defenders in the box, perhaps anticipating a run. Outside linebacker Sione Takitaki lined up in the slot, across from Brown. With a free release, all Brown had to do was beat Browns safety Andrew Sendejo, the secondary’s lone deep presence.

Sendejo, playing in center field, did not get left in the dust as Brown bent his route back to the left sideline, but sometimes all a quarterback like Jackson needs is a half-step of separation. With Brown’s acceleration — he hit 20.45 mph as a ball carrier, according to the NFL’s Next Gen Stats, one of Week 1′s top speeds — Jackson had a throwing window.

The final product was everything that could elevate the Ravens offense to another level: a clean pocket, a healthy Brown and a downfield bull’s-eye. On plays in which the ball traveled at least 10 yards in the air, Jackson was 11-for-13 for 194 yards and three touchdowns.

2. Screen time: The Ravens were not a screen team last year, and their offense was probably better off for it. According to an analysis by Next Gen Stats, wide receiver screens were the only route in football — excluding those run out of the backfield — with a negative efficiency last year.

But with Jackson at quarterback and a handful of talented, versatile blockers at their disposal, the Ravens have a way of turning convention on its head. The analytics community typically frowns upon run-reliant attacks; the Ravens last year thumbed their nose at predictability and finished with a ground game more efficient than some passing offenses.

Could they find success with screens, too? Last year, it was a struggle. Their two longest completions on wide receiver screens — not including touch passes run for Brown — went for 11 yards.

On Sunday, offensive coordinator Greg Roman called just one screen play, close to his weekly average in 2019. It happened to be Jackson’s first pass of the season — a screen to speedy rookie wide receiver Devin Duvernay, who feasted on the play call at Texas. This one worked, too: With tight ends Mark Andrews and Nick Boyle leading the way, Duvernay was 8 or 9 yards past the line of scrimmage before a defender contacted him.

The 12-yard completion was a preview of what could be available to the Ravens. Screens are best when they attack numerical imbalances. When Jackson lined up before the snap, he had three Ravens receivers, Duvernay included, matched up against two Browns defenders. A play-action fake froze the linebackers and maintained the advantage. When Duvernay got the ball, the math was in his favor.

3. A new option: The Ravens have built their ground game to be smashmouth and their aerial attack to be explosive. They’ve developed a Pro Bowl fullback and drafted for speed at wide receiver. That is the yin and the yang of their unique offense.

So when the Ravens break their own mold, it’s noticeable. That was the case in the first quarter, when Brown went in motion to his right, the offensive line blocked to its right — and Jackson ran a speed option to his left with running back Mark Ingram II.

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There was nobody blocking for them, but there were no linebackers to tackle them, either. With a little bit of window dressing and misdirection, Jackson ran for 15 yards before pitching the ball to Ingram, who bobbled it, recovered it and fell forward for another 3 yards.

Run defenses can’t freelance against the Ravens. They also can’t forget that Jackson’s speed makes him an open-field nightmare. That’s the headache this offense causes.

Defense

4. Campbell in coverage: Not a lot of 6-foot-8, 300-pound people ever reach the NFL. The proud few who do usually stick to the line of scrimmage. That’s where defensive end Calais Campbell, all 80 inches of him, left his mark over 12 seasons with the Arizona Cardinals and Jacksonville Jaguars.

Last year, he dropped into coverage just twice in 16 games, according to Pro Football Focus. In 2018, also just two coverage snaps. In 2017, a career-high five. Over 9,331 career defensive snaps, he has rushed the passer or defended the run all but 26 times.

So what did Ravens defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale have Campbell do on the defense’s first drive Sunday? On third-and-10, Martindale called one of his patented “creepers,” a simulated pressure in which a second- or third-level defender, like an inside linebacker or safety, replaces a first-level defender, like a lineman or edge rusher. Safety DeShon Elliott had to “blitz”; Campbell had to drop into coverage.

Baker Mayfield never saw the biggest player on the field relocate. Campbell followed the Browns quarterback’s eyes as he locked on to wide receiver KhaDarel Hodge, running into space over the middle of the field. Mayfield’s pass slipped through Campbell’s hands, but the deflection hung in the air long enough for cornerback Marlon Humphrey to make the interception.

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“I gotta get on the [JUGS] machine,” Campbell joked on his Instagram Story after the game. He wasn’t used to it, either.

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5. ‘Creeper’ confusion: When the Ravens drafted inside linebacker Patrick Queen with the No. 28 overall pick this April, it was something of a perfect fit. The defense not only needed its linebacker of the future, but it also needed him to understand how the Ravens wanted their linebackers to play defense.

At LSU, Queen had studied under then-defensive coordinator Dave Aranda. Part of his football education was an exposure to “creepers” pressures — maybe not the same the Ravens use, but close enough. With Queen’s speed and tenacity, he became a standout pass-rushing inside linebacker. As a junior last season, he had three sacks and 19 quarterback pressures, according to Sports Info Solutions.

Queen’s pocket-puncturing potential was evident Sunday. Midway through the second quarter, with the Browns facing a second-and-29 and expected to pass, he lined up 6 yards off the ball. Just before the snap, Queen moved closer. He was coming after Mayfield.

The Ravens needed only four pass rushers to get their first sack of the season. On one side of Queen, the Browns had two blockers for two defenders. On the other side, Campbell drew the attention of Cleveland center J.C. Tretter just long enough for Queen to fire past him.

Shrugging off a last-ditch block attempt by left guard Joel Bitonio, Queen was in the backfield as soon as Mayfield reached the end of his drop. With Campbell preventing an escape route, Queen wrapped him up easily. Former Raven Patrick Onwuasor finished with an impressive 5½ sacks in 2018 and added three last year; his replacement might top those marks in his debut NFL season.

6. Safety in numbers: In Marcus Peters, Tavon Young and Humphrey, the Ravens have three talented cornerbacks. In Chuck Clark and DeShon Elliott, they have two safeties who, health and performance permitting, will rarely take a play off.

So where did that leave Jimmy Smith on Sunday? Well, just about everywhere except his normal outside role. In his first snap, he lined up where Earl Thomas III might have: 15-plus yards off the line of scrimmage. The longtime Ravens cornerback’s responsibilities against Cleveland were indeed more like that of a safety. He covered tight ends in man coverage, blitzed off the edge and dropped into zone coverage deep.

Smith had a quiet day statistically, though he did stop tight end Austin Hooper short of the sticks on third down early in the second quarter. But his flexibility allows the Ravens to move around Clark, one of Martindale’s favorite chess pieces, as they did last year.

Special teams

7. Happy returns: The Ravens' kickoff returns last year were mediocre. According to Football Outsiders, the unit finished No. 21 in the NFL in efficiency. Wide receiver Chis Moore led all Ravens with a 20.3-yard return average, but he returned just four. Running back Justice Hill’s season-long return went for 46 yards.

If the Ravens defense remains as stout as it was Sunday, No. 1 returner Duvernay might not get a lot of chances on kickoffs this season. But the rookie’s two early showings were promising, as were the unit’s as a whole.

On Duvernay’s big return, the first of his career overall, he got help from the usual suspects. Fullback Patrick Ricard and Boyle, Duvernay’s two main escorts, did what they could to clear a path. But safety Jordan Richards, a practice squad call-up, and inside linebacker L.J. Fort also made key blocks that sprang the 38-yard return.

Duvernay’s second attempt went for 26 yards, and was helped by a 15-yard face-mask penalty. He showed good patience in probing different routes before putting his head down and fighting for extra yardage.

If Duvernay can be a dependable ball carrier this season, his 4.39-second speed in the 40-yard dash would give the Ravens a dimension they lacked last season.

RAVENS@TEXANS

Sunday, 4:25 p.m.

TV: Ch. 13 Radio: 1090 AM, 97.9 FM

Line: Ravens by 6 1/2

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