The Ravens had the NFL’s most dominant offense last season. They also had tendencies that even Pee Wee coaches could understand.
But that was what made quarterback Lamar Jackson the NFL’s Most Valuable Player, and offensive coordinator Greg Roman the NFL’s Assistant of the Year, and their 2019 attack so potent. Game after game, play after play, the Ravens would do what they did best, daring defenses to stop them. Most of the time, the defenses couldn’t.
So when Roman heard about Jackson’s eyebrow-raising comments Wednesday, when he indicated on “The Rich Eisen Show” that defenses this season sometimes know the Ravens' plays before they happen, he understood it to be a part of the game.
“Calling out plays on the defense is nothing new,” Roman said in a video conference call Thursday. “I can talk about Ed Reed and Ray Lewis; every play, they’re trying to guess what play you’re going to run, based on what they’re seeing. That’s the chess match. That’s kind of where it gets interesting, because if you’re not good at anything, you have no tendencies. So you really want to work to be good at everything.”
The problem in Baltimore is that, this season, that seems harder than ever. As the Ravens (6-2) head into a “Sunday Night Football” matchup with the New England Patriots (3-5), their offense, and its most important piece, has looked predictable.
Last year, the Ravens ranked first in the NFL in both rushing and passing efficiency, according to Football Outsiders. After slugging out a win Sunday against the Indianapolis Colts, they fell to No. 23 overall (fifth in rushing and 23rd in passing). The offense averaged just 4.2 yards per play inside Lucas Oil Stadium, and the Ravens' season-long mark (5.5 yards) is No. 22 in the NFL after ranking third in 2019 (6.1).
On Wednesday, Jackson told Eisen that the Ravens are “usually” a “high-level offense,” but that their performance hasn’t been to their satisfaction. Eisen pointed out that this season hasn’t looked as “easy” for him as last season did.
“A lot of [it is] schemes,” Jackson said. “We’re going against defenses — they’re calling out our plays, stuff like that. They know what we’re doing. So a lot of that. Sometimes, stuff won’t go our way if they beat us to the punch.”
Jackson was asked whether he’d indeed heard defenses calling out plays before the snap. “Yeah, they definitely do,” he said. “Runs, stuff like that. ‘Watch out for this.’ ‘Watch out for that.’ Sometimes that’s what’s going on.”
Jackson indicated that Roman and the Ravens have had to make halftime adjustments. Against the Colts, they averaged just 2.2 yards per play in the first half, when their offense was shut out. In the second half, when the Ravens scored 17 unanswered points, they averaged 5.6 yards per play; Indianapolis had entered the game allowing just 4.9 yards per play, third best in the NFL.
“As halftime came around, we just weren’t being very productive,” Roman said Thursday. “We certainly had to make some adjustments based on what we were seeing. They changed it up a little bit on us from what we expected, and quite frankly, our execution wasn’t as clean as it could’ve been on certain things, which got us off the field. And we weren’t able to sustain drives. I thought the guys did an amazing job adapting at halftime and just really executing consistently in that second half.”
That was rarely a problem last season, when the Ravens led the NFL in scoring. But in 2020, Jackson has struggled with his accuracy, the offensive line hasn’t stayed healthy (or adequately replaced All-Pro guard Marshal Yanda), and the Ravens' young wide receivers haven’t developed into front-line starters. Consistent production has been elusive.
Roman’s play calling has also come under scrutiny, and some of the Ravens' tendencies are obvious. On first down, they’ve run the ball nearly two-thirds (65%) of the time this season, according to Sharp Football Stats; the leaguewide average is 51%. It’s not a significant departure from last season, when the Ravens ran the ball 62% of the time on first down.
What’s changed is their effectiveness. The Ravens averaged 5.2 yards per first-down carry and 6.9 yards per first-down pass attempt in 2019. This year, their ground-game reliance has increased even as their first-down rushing production (3.9 yards per carry) has fallen below the NFL’s average (4.3 yards per carry) — and even as their passing production (8.5 yards per attempt) has jumped.
Those trends continued Sunday, when the Ravens had 27 plays on first down. Seventeen were runs; they averaged 2.5 yards per play. Ten were passes; Jackson went 8-for-10 for 81 yards and wasn’t sacked once. On the Ravens' two longest drives — a 68-yarder that ended with running back Gus Edwards' red-zone fumble and a 75-yarder that put the Ravens ahead 21-10 — Jackson passed on first down at least half the time.
“If you’re in the best possible situation, you can do basic things very well and people still can’t stop you,” Roman said. “I think that’s what you’re always striving to do. But that doesn’t always work in the NFL. That doesn’t work all the time. You’ve got to change it up. So we work hard at changing it up. We’re very aware of our tendencies. We’re aware that there are some right now.”
Opponents have noted the Ravens' predictability, too. After their offense struggled in a comfortable Week 5 win over the Bengals, Cincinnati safety Jessie Bates III said the defense knew that Jackson wanted to target wide receiver Marquise “Hollywood” Brown and tight end Mark Andrews. He finished 19-for-37 for 180 yards, two touchdowns and an interception.
In a Week 9 loss to the Steelers, the Ravens became the first (and, so far, only) team to finish with over 400 yards of total offense against Pittsburgh. But the game swung on a third-quarter interception by outside linebacker Alex Highsmith, who said he knew where Jackson wanted to put the ball on a sideline throw.
“They ran the same play [in] the first half, and I didn’t drop deep enough, and they threw it over my head,” Highsmith said afterward. “So I learned from that play and just dropped deeper. The ball just fell right to my hands.”
The road ahead is easier. The Patriots, who entered last season’s “Sunday Night Football” showdown against the Ravens with a historically great defense, now rank second to last in the NFL in efficiency. The Tennessee Titans, who visit Baltimore in Week 11, are No. 18. Over the season’s final month, the Ravens will face five of the NFL’s 11 worst defenses, including the dead-last Jacksonville Jaguars, and just one unit ranked in the top half (No. 2 Pittsburgh).
Even bad defenses learn quickly, though. If the Ravens' struggles continue, they’ll have to adjust their offensive strategy somehow, somewhere. It could happen in the coaches' booth, where Roman overlooks the field and calls in their plays. It could happen at the line of scrimmage, where Jackson sometimes has the option to audible to a more favorable call.
As Roman said, “There’s a little bit of a chess match there.” But the pieces have to do their part, too. Calling the right play is important. Executing it is paramount.
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“Since the beginning of time, even dinosaur football players would call out what they thought the offensive plays were,” NBC analyst Cris Collinsworth said in an interview. He recalled how New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton had said that, with stadiums mostly empty this season, his defensive players had heard more warnings from coaches and teammates on the sideline about what plays to watch out for.
“But [Payton] said, ‘Once I listened to it, I just told all our guys to shut up, because it has to be confusing.’ Now, if they’re hitting on an extraordinary number of plays, somebody’s tipping something. That’s an issue. But if it’s just typical defensive guys yelling out stuff, and one of them hits the right play, does that have an impact? It really doesn’t.”
Baltimore Sun reporter Childs Walker contributed to this story.
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Line: Ravens by 7