After the greatest rushing season in NFL history, the Ravens wanted more. In December, Gus Edwards said the plan was to break the single-year rushing record they’d just set. In May, Mark Ingram II said the ground game could be even better in 2020. There was more talent, more experience, more speed.
But heavy is the head that wears the crown. Through six games, the Ravens lead the NFL in yards per carry (5.4), are third in yards per game (164.3) and fifth in rushing efficiency, according to Football Outsiders. Their running game isn’t historic. It’s also not broken. It’s just not what it used to be.
“I think it’s understandable,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said of the criticism of the team’s offense, which is No. 18 in overall efficiency heading into its Week 7 bye. “We use the same standard. It’s where we want to be and we want to improve on where we’ve been in the past. Sure, we’re not where we want to be. But I don’t think we weren’t necessarily where we wanted to be last year at this time either. We know we have a lot of work to do.”
With a year’s worth of Ravens film to study, defenses have made it tough on them this season. Offensive coordinator Greg Roman’s playbook is voluminous, but Harbaugh and quarterback Lamar Jackson said defenses have surprised them at times with their strategies from week to week.
In Week 3, the Kansas City Chiefs dared Jackson to beat them on blitzes and in man coverage. In Week 5, the Cincinnati Bengals ran a college-style 4-3 defense, with their safeties playing shallower than expected. On Sunday, the Philadelphia Eagles filled the box with even more defenders to stymie the Ravens' rushing attack.
“It’s our job to process the different looks we’re getting and to create the situations for [Jackson] to execute,” Harbaugh said in a video conference call Monday. “It’s our job to, basically, put him in a position to make the plays. To come up with the plays, or the audibles, or whatever it might be against different things they’re doing, that’s 100% our responsibility, and we’re working hard to do that.”
If defenses are asking safeties to help in run support, “we have to make people pay for that,” Harbaugh said. But there’s another way to avoid seeing eight or nine defenders at the line of scrimmage, too: Spread the offense out.
The Ravens (5-1) can’t control how defenses will line up. But they can influence them. And with Ingram recovering from a sprained ankle that could sideline him for the team’s Week 8 clash against the Pittsburgh Steelers (5-0), the Ravens have an excuse to try something new with rookie J.K. Dobbins.
At Ohio State, the Buckeyes' 2019 running offense was similar to the Ravens', with a mix of zone and gap concepts executed primarily out of the pistol formation. But Dobbins rarely had to run against stacked boxes. With Ohio State’s spread offense and talented receivers, he faced at least eight defenders in the box on just 9% of his carries, according to Yahoo.
Dobbins has elite acceleration and top-end speed, but Buckeyes coaches didn’t have to spoon-feed him touches in space. According to Sports Info Solutions, he averaged 6.9 yards per carry running off left tackle (on 82 attempts), 7.6 yards off right tackle (92 attempts) and 5.9 yards between the tackles (127 attempts).
Under Roman, the Ravens offense has taken on a smashmouth personality. While the team’s attack, like most in the NFL, relies heavily on “11” personnel — nearly a half of its plays have one running back, one tight end and three wide receivers — the Ravens also have a Pro Bowl fullback in Patrick Ricard and an accomplished blocker in tight end Nick Boyle. It’s an offense that’s unafraid of close-quarters combat.
But sometimes Roman’s fondness for heavy personnel groupings and bunch formations can do more harm than good. According to a review of the offense in Sunday’s 30-28 win, the Ravens averaged just 3.8 yards per play against eight Eagles defenders in the box. (The definition, in this case, is inexact, but all defenders who were about 3 to 5 yards from the line of scrimmage and could have a run fit were counted.) Against six or seven Eagles in the box, meanwhile, the Ravens averaged over 8 yards per play.
As Harbaugh pointed out Monday, crowded boxes are becoming increasingly common hurdles for this Ravens offense. They were just as effective for Cincinnati’s defense the week before. Against eight Bengals in the box, the Ravens averaged 3.2 yards per play, easily the offense’s worst output against a particular defensive density.
The defensive alignment isn’t a death sentence for the Ravens; two of their biggest running plays this season have come against eight-man boxes. But both relied on misdirection. Dobbins' 44-yard run down the left sideline against the Houston Texans in Week 2 was set up, in part, by the presnap motion of wide receiver Devin Duvernay and postsnap movement of Boyle, who both flowed to the right, taking defenders' eyes with them.
And Jackson’s 37-yard touchdown run Sunday came on an inverted-veer play, a zone-read scheme that lets Jackson cut through the spine of the defense while the running back bounces out wide — perhaps not what the Eagles had expected.
If the Ravens want a more sustainable rushing attack, they might want to look more like Ohio State did last year. For Roman’s ground game this year, a spread-out defense has been a weakened defense.
Against six or fewer defenders in the box, the Ravens have run 45 times for 327 yards, or 7.3 yards per carry, according to Sports Info Solutions. Against seven defenders, the average falls to 5.3 yards (64 carries for 337 yards). Against eight defenders, just 3.7 yards per carry. The Ravens have run seven times for 50 yards against nine or more defenders, a strong rate for a small sample size heavily influenced by Ingram’s direct-snap touchdown against the Texans.
The space helps Jackson on drop-backs, too. He has a combined seven scrambles for 58 yards against four, five or six defenders, and just four scrambles for 17 yards against seven or more.
“From what I see, I think a lot of people are kind of loading the box up, doing different things to stop our run game, stop our QB-driven game, by maybe having lower defenders who are supposed to be deep, and just trying to really take that out to stop that,” tight end Nick Boyle said Friday. “Because the run game is very multidimensional, and it can attack you in a bunch of different ways. So that’s what teams are really keying on to stop us.”
Transitioning to a more spread approach wouldn’t be easy. With potentially fewer middle-of-the-field targets available, Jackson would have to show better accuracy and more willingness on sideline throws. The offensive line would have to hold up with less help from an extra blocker. The receivers would have to win more of their one-on-one battles in space. Ricard’s role in the offense could fluctuate.
Whatever the offense’s next iteration is, the Steelers won’t allow for an easy trial run. But if there’s a week for the Ravens' offensive staff to consider the big picture and take decisive action, this is it. In 2018, the Ravens returned from their bye with an injured Joe Flacco, an inexperienced Jackson and a run-first approach. In 2019, they came back with a sharpened passing attack that transformed their offense into the NFL’s best.
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The talent is there for a similar turnaround. The key is figuring out how it all fits together.
“I think we’ve got a good identity,” Roman said Thursday. “We’ve got to just continue to fine-tune and take care of the details on certain things, but the identity is definitely something that we kind of hang our hat on, and I think it really becomes a function of overall efficiency and execution, which we’re working hard at. As this year progresses and we keep working, I definitely think that identity can appear to change, at least.”