After six disappointing weeks, the Ravens offense needed a break. There was a lot to process.
How did an offense that led the NFL in both rushing and passing efficiency last season now rank 19th overall, according to Football Outsiders? Why was quarterback Lamar Jackson, the NFL’s reigning Most Valuable Player, struggling with his accuracy? What did an ailing offensive line need during the bye week, other than rest? Where in coordinator Greg Roman’s playbook could he find the blueprint for another midseason explosion?
Entering Week 8, the Ravens have much to admire: a 5-1 record, a much-improved defense, the NFL’s best special teams unit. But no unit has been more vexing than an offense that returned almost all its record-breaking pieces, only to have them look bent out of shape when put back together.
When the Ravens take the field Sunday against the AFC North-leading Pittsburgh Steelers (6-0), M&T Bank Stadium could be a launchpad for the attack, just as it was in a Week 9 win over the New England Patriots last season. So how should Roman, Jackson and the Ravens move forward?
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 — here are five suggestions.
1. Keep taking shots downfield
The crazy thing about Jackson’s historic MVP season was that he still left room to grow. He didn’t turn 23 until January. He was in only his first season with Roman. And, maybe most promisingly, he’d become one of the NFL’s best passers despite struggling with some of the NFL’s toughest throws.
Jackson led the NFL in touchdown percentage and was 10th in interception percentage because, from 5 to 20 yards downfield, anywhere between the numbers, he could usually put the ball where he wanted to. On sideline throws and deep shots, though, he was more pedestrian.
For Jackson to sustain his elite passing performance, he knew he’d have to make all the throws. The Ravens made them a focus during an abbreviated offseason. Defenses catch up quickly in the NFL.
Almost two months into this season, however, Jackson’s 2020 struggles have been most clearly reflected in his 2019 problem areas. On outside-the-numbers throws last season, Jackson completed 64.7% of his passes and posted a 101.7 passer rating. This season, his accuracy is down to 57.4% and his rating is down to 86.9. Among quarterbacks with 20-plus sideline attempts, his EPA per play ranks No. 33 of 38.
Jackson’s downfield efficiency has been even more worrisome. After hitting 35.6% of his “deep” throws in 2019 — attempts where the target depth was at least 20 yards — Jackson is 5-for-21 (23.8%) in 2020. On passes of 30-plus air yards, he’s 1-for-7, with his one completion coming in Week 1 on a pass to wide receiver Marquise “Hollywood” Brown. He was 7-for-19 on such throws last year.
The NFL is a copycat league, and the Ravens should expect more defenses to move up their safeties and crowd the box, eager to take away the running game. That could make Jackson’s intermediate throws, where his accuracy’s actually improved (65.8% on passes between 10 and 19 yards), more difficult.
But with the speed of receivers like Brown, Miles Boykin and Devin Duvernay, he’ll continue to have favorable looks downfield, as he often did against Washington and the Kansas City Chiefs. He just has to hit them.
2. Pass more on first down
The problem for the Ravens isn’t that their first-down tendencies are predictable. They were predictable last year, too. The problem is that their tendencies this year are getting them in trouble.
In 2019, according to Sharp Football Stats, the Ravens ran the ball on 63% of their first-and-10 situations, the NFL’s third-highest such ratio. This year, they’re up to 64% on first-and-10, also the third-highest ratio.
While the Ravens have, on balance, become more pass-happy this season, their performance thus far suggests that, on first down, they should be even more committed. It could mean the difference between second-and-comfortable and a more precarious place.
The Ravens’ running game should make it an easy call. Last year, they averaged 5.4 yards per carry on first down, excluding kneel-downs. This year, they’re down to 4.1 yards per carry. After being a net positive last year, according to EPA, first-down runs are now dragging the offense down.
Jackson, meanwhile, has been even more productive on relatively fewer drop-back opportunities. While he’s taking a higher share of sacks, Jackson’s accuracy (72.7%), yards per attempt (9.3) and passer rating (119.4) on first down have all notably improved.
If teams are keen on stopping the Ravens' ground game, the answer is simple and effective: play-action. Run fakes benefit every passing attack — just ask the Tennessee Titans' Ryan Tannehill, who turns into a Pro Bowl-level player whenever running back Derrick Henry pretends to take a handoff.
Research by FiveThirtyEight has shown that linebackers respond to the 11th play-action fake they see in a game about as unproductively as they do their first. Until defenses respect Jackson’s arm, the Ravens should capitalize on how much they fear his legs.
3. Fix empty-back plays or ditch them
The Ravens gave defenses no easy outs last season. They could outslug heavyweights in close quarters. They could also, just as easily, stretch opponents to their breaking point.
In empty formations last season — only Jackson in the backfield, with five receivers typically surrounding him — the Ravens were a juggernaut. Jackson led the NFL in EPA per play on drop-backs, with 1,000-plus combined yards on 122 opportunities (869 passing yards on 101 attempts and 170 yards on 16 carries, plus five sacks).
This season, the Ravens' cheat code just hasn’t worked. And they’ve tried it, a lot: Almost a quarter of Jackson’s drop-backs have come in empty formations. But only the Indianapolis Colts' Philip Rivers has been less efficient, according to EPA.
Jackson’s accuracy hasn’t been his biggest problem; he’s 23-for-38 (60.5%) out of empty. He just isn’t getting the ball where it needs to go — no touchdowns, one interception and only 5.8 yards per attempt — nor is he getting the ball out on time. Jackson was sacked about once every 25 drop-backs in the formation last year; this year, the rate’s jumped to nearly once every 11.
The Ravens' efficiency should stabilize over the course of the season. Unlike Rivers, Jackson is a constant threat to break free in space, freezing linebackers and opening throwing windows. The offensive line should also improve with better health. If it doesn’t, the Ravens need to reconsider where Jackson is best served in this offense.
4. Get Jackson help vs. man coverage
From a macro perspective, opponents haven’t changed how they defend Jackson in coverage. Last season, Jackson saw man-coverage schemes — Cover 0, Cover 1 (one deep safety) and Cover 2 man (two deep safeties) — on 31.8% of his drop-backs. This year, it’s 32%.
What has changed is Jackson’s success against those defenses. When he dropped back against man coverage last season, his passer rating (127.7) was better than the overall passer rating for any quarterback over the past 10 seasons. He threw 18 touchdowns and zero interceptions and completed 64% of his passes.
This year (101.3 rating), Jackson’s played more like the Los Angeles Rams' Jared Goff (102.4). Which wouldn’t be a bad thing, if not for the six sacks on 56 drop-backs, again more than double last year’s rate against the same type of defenses.
Maybe no drop-off is more jarring than Jackson’s production against Cover 0, an all-out blitz scheme in which defenders have no safety help in coverage. Here, Jackson still has gotten the ball out quickly, with just one sack on 13 drop-backs. But his completion percentage has fallen from 76.9% to 58.3%, and even his completions are averaging just 4.4 yards per play, down from 7.9 yards last year.
No defense has disrupted Jackson’s timing better than the Chiefs', which forced quick throws and tackled well in space. For as long as Jackson struggles with heavy blitzes, the Ravens should expect to see them from opposing defenses. Only the Philadelphia Eagles' Carson Wentz has faced more Cover 0 defenses this season, and he’s attempted over 100 passes more than Jackson has.
A rebound is likely coming, but it’s in man coverage where the Ravens' coaching staff and supporting pieces need to help him the most. Jackson has to identify open receivers and elude pressure, of course. But linemen have to keep the pocket clean. Receivers have to get open downfield. And if they can’t, Roman needs to call man-coverage beaters — pick plays, stacked-receiver formations, athletic mismatches — that will help.
5. Use more misdirection in the running game
If defenses stack the box and dare the Ravens to run the ball, there’s only so much the offense can do when it actually does run the ball. Jackson gives the Ravens a unique numerical advantage — defenses normally don’t have to account for the quarterback in running plays — but only to a point.
With an offseason to study the Ravens' run schemes, defenses so far have shown a better grasp of how to limit Jackson’s carries, if not necessarily his effectiveness. (Jackson is averaging 6.9 yards per carry, matching his mark from last year.) He has just 25 carries on quarterback-driven runs this season, or 15.1% of the Ravens' rushing workload this season, excluding kneel-downs. Last season, he finished with 19% total.
On zone-read plays, edge defenders can sometimes force Jackson to hand the ball off inside, where the Ravens have struggled at times to get a good push. And when Jackson’s taken the ball himself and broken outside, second-level players have typically strung out his runs, not letting him turn the corner. After averaging 8.2 yards on outside runs last season, Jackson’s down to 5.7 this year.
The Ravens' use of presnap motion is one form of leverage; tight end Nick Boyle and fullback Patrick Ricard are good enough blockers to create gaps on the fly. But misdirection could feature more prominently in Roman’s playbook over the next two months if defenses play the Ravens the same way.
On Jackson’s two longest runs this season, his 50-yard touchdown against Washington and 37-yard score against the Eagles, the Ravens used an inverted-veer play call that trades the relative safety of a quarterback sprinting out wide for a run up the gut. With Jackson and his running back switching roles, the Ravens could take advantage of a confused defense for a big gain.
If opponents want to play downhill, it’s on the Ravens to lead them down the wrong path. Against the Cincinnati Bengals, they turned a normal zone-read look into an end-around for wide receiver Devin Duvernay, who took it 42 yards. In the season opener against the Cleveland Browns, Jackson ran a speed option with running back Mark Ingram II to the left while his linemen blocked right and picked up 15 yards easily.
As Ingram said earlier this month, “The 2020 Ravens are different." Their offense will be, too.
Sunday, 1 p.m.
TV: Ch. 13
Radio: 1090 AM, 97.9 FM