In football, the old coaching axiom goes that offensive linemen will bring you to the ball. If they drop back at the snap, it’s probably a passing play. And if it’s not, the line should tell you where the ball-carrier’s going.
So when Leighton Vander Esch lined up across from Lamar Jackson and the Ravens on a fourth-and-2 play in the first quarter Tuesday night, he knew which keys to read. The Dallas Cowboys middle linebacker was an All-Pro selection only two years ago. When he saw left tackle Orlando Brown Jr. and left guard Bradley Bozeman start to pull to the right side of the line, he flowed with them.
“I read it perfectly,” Vander Esch said after the 34-17 loss, “until I second-guessed myself.”
The most unstoppable play in the Ravens’ running game doesn’t have a name, because it’s not really a play. It doesn’t fit neatly into one concept, either, because it’s really more of an idea. But that idea — that a quarterback and running back would switch roles on a “traditional” option play — has sewn chaos for opposing defenses this season.
Jackson’s three longest runs this season, and four of the Ravens’ six longest overall, have come on “inverted” option plays. They are a calculated counterpunch, weaponizing the offense’s most electric player and paralyzing a defense’s notions about how to stop him, a moment of confusion creating a moment of brilliance.
That was the bind Vander Esch found himself in Tuesday: He’d followed Brown and Bozeman into the gap he’d needed to fill, but when he peeked into the backfield, what he saw confused him: Jackson, normally the outside runner, handing off the ball to running back J.K. Dobbins, who was moving away from the pulling linemen.
That’s what he thought, anyway. Jackson, seeing the unblocked edge defender commit to Dobbins, had actually kept the ball himself and followed his blockers inside. He no doubt expected to see Vander Esch there, waiting for him near the first-down marker. But the linebacker had guessed wrong. By the time Vander Esch turned around to see Jackson running with the ball, it was too late. Jackson strutted into the end zone for a 37-yard score.
“There are a lot of different types of plays we run along those lines that cause conflicts for the defense in our run game; you hear the defensive coordinators talk about it quite often,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said Thursday. “It’s definitely one of our concepts. It’s one of our good concepts, and it’s a really tough thing to defend, for sure.”
There was a rich coincidence to its use Tuesday. Chris B. Brown, an author and editor for Smart Football, has credited the development of the play type to Texas Christian. In 2009, the Horned Frogs, coached by Gary Patterson and led on offense by coordinator Justin Fuente, beat Clemson with the help of an option play the Tigers had never seen.
TCU’s star quarterback that season? The same guy who started Tuesday for Dallas: Andy Dalton.
With the rise of the spread offense over the past 15 years, the “inverted veer,” as Brown characterized it — a wrinkle on the popular “veer” concept that gives the quarterback the option of an inside handoff or attacking out wide — took hold across the country in college football. When Auburn won the Bowl Championship Series national title in 2010, quarterback Cam Newton’s most iconic play, a 49-yard run against No. 6 LSU, was an inverted-veer keeper.
By the time Jackson arrived in Baltimore, a Heisman Trophy winner himself, he’d filled highlight reels with sprint after sprint up the middle.
“When you put that type of player, that type of generational talent, in that scheme that’s already, in my opinion, the best run scheme that you can come up with, then you’re going to have explosive results,” said Seth Galina, a senior analyst for Pro Football Focus and former college coach. “Obviously, we saw that at Louisville.”
Last year, the Ravens had Jackson and their top two running backs, Mark Ingram II and Gus Edwards, invert their roles on option plays occasionally. But the team’s run-blocking schemes and execution were so sound, and opponents were so unprepared, that the Ravens didn’t need to expose Jackson to dangerous hits up the middle. On their way to the NFL’s single-season rushing record, some of his most memorable highlights were scrambles or jukes.
This year, the Ravens’ bread-and-butter run plays have not been as sustaining. Against an offense now missing two All-Pros — injured left tackle Ronnie Stanley and retired right guard Marshal Yanda — defensive lines have been more disruptive up front. Behind them, linebackers and safeties have flowed faster to Jackson and his lead blockers on outside runs. A ground game that was historically great is now merely great-for-2020.
Offensive coordinator Greg Roman’s solution has been to throw a curveball every once in a while. Of course, there will always be risk in taking the safety of the sideline away from the NFL’s reigning Most Valuable Player — Jackon “is too good of a passer that you need him to go run to the middle of the defense all the time,” Galina said — but sometimes that risk becomes necessary.
Because when the Ravens’ run-game inversions work, Jackson can make his way to the end zone untouched. There wasn’t a defender within 5 yards of him when he opened the Ravens’ scoring Tuesday.
“Knowing what the defense was in at that time, that’s just the best play for that system for what the defense has out there,” Jackson said. “The line just does a great job. We just read it out, we get the look and we just take advantage of it. We just score points off that. That’s all.”
It’s not that simple; it’s never that simple. Jackson’s three biggest runs this season might’ve looked the same, a burst up the middle to paydirt, but each had its own wrinkle.
Against the Washington Football Team in Week 4, the Ravens ran what’s known as a power read, with Bozeman pulling from left to right and Dobbins, lined up to Jackson’s left, doing the same. Washington defensive end Ryan Anderson was supposed to dictate where Jackson went with the ball. Instead, he tried to take on Bozeman. He whiffed, so Bozeman took out the next defender, and Jackson ran for a 50-yard score.
Against the Philadelphia Eagles in Week 6, Jackson and Dobbins again lined up in the shotgun formation. This time, Roman went with a “bash” concept, in which the running back heads to the back side of the play — away from the pulling action — and the line blocks for the quarterback as if he’s keeping the ball. Jackson did, and the Eagles’ linebackers split like a wishbone, leaving him a seam up the middle for a 37-yard touchdown.
Against the Cowboys, the Ravens went back to bash. Only this time, instead of a pulling center and left tackle, it was a pulling left guard and left tackle. The execution was like clockwork: Jackson read the back-side edge rusher, Bozeman reached the front-side edge rusher just in time, and Brown smothered the onrushing safety. With Vander Esch’s bad gamble, it was easy money.
“You need a player who can do it, like Lamar, so that’s I think why teams like it so much,” Galina said. “They love to run power [a blocking scheme], but, hey, why don’t we have the best of both worlds and run power without even blocking the defensive end?”
Against a dreadful Dallas defense, the Ravens finished with a season-high 294 rushing yards Tuesday. Almost a quarter of that total came on two plays leveraging that same rushing concept and ending with different outcomes.
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First came Jackson’s 37-yard touchdown run, the longest carry all night. One quarter later, the Ravens called seemingly the same “bash” play, and out of the same four-wide formation. Only this time, Dobbins got the handoff. With every level of the defense keying in on Jackson, Dobbins got to the edge, turned the corner and, helped by great downfield blocking, picked up a 30-yard gain.
“That’s the cat-and-mouse game,” Galina said. “They’re going to get players with all that movement in the backfield to guess wrong. And if you guess wrong against Lamar Jackson, there’s problems.”
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Line: Ravens by 2