Even as the Ravens offense was flipped upside down in November, transformed from a run-of-the-mill, drop-back passing attack to an exotic, run-dominant approach, coach John Harbaugh stressed that there was not that much new. Same blocking schemes, he said. Just some different formations and a new quarterback.
But change, however small, was for the better. In fleet-footed rookie Lamar Jackson and assistant head coach Greg Roman’s run concepts, the Ravens found a powerful cocktail. As pyrotechnic passing attacks carried the banner for the NFL's top offenses, the Ravens dared opposing defenses to stop them from running. Only twice in their final seven regular-season games did they rush fewer than 40 times.
With the promotion of Roman to offensive coordinator this month, the Ravens — and the rest of the NFL, too — know what their ground game will look like next season: a mix of zone reads, misdirection and power-based pulls run out of a multitude of formations.
Less clear is the shape of their passing offense. The Ravens’ loss to the Los Angeles Chargers in their wild-card-round playoff game offered a reminder that for as much as offenses can evolve, defenses do not lag behind for long. The Ravens couldn’t run in their second meeting in three weeks against the Chargers, nor could they pass until late.
With Marty Mornhinweg leaving the Ravens staff, the receiving corps subject to change and Jackson entering an important developmental offseason, the Ravens’ aerial attack is in flux. But Roman’s work at his first two offensive coordinator jobs, with the San Francisco 49ers (2011-14) and Buffalo Bills (2015-16), offers lessons for what might lie ahead.
1. A run-heavy offense won’t dictate caution in the passing game.
Over 18 games with Roman as offensive coordinator, the Bills were, predictably, a run-reliant team. Bolstered by LeSean McCoy, they finished first in 2015 in rushing yards and yards per carry and second in attempts.
They also averaged nearly one 20-plus-yard passing touchdown per game. According to ESPN Stats & Info, Buffalo under Roman led the NFL with 16 such scores, four more than the runner-up Seattle Seahawks. Tyrod Taylor finished third among starting quarterbacks in 2015 in average “air yards,” the total distance of a pass attempt at the moment the ball is caught in relation to the line of scrimmage.
That Buffalo team, with Sammy Watkins, Robert Woods, Chris Hogan and an occasionally healthy Percy Harvin, had more talent out wide than the Ravens do. But an emphasis on downfield passing has been in Roman’s DNA since he left Stanford with Jim Harbaugh years earlier for San Francisco.
In 2012, Colin Kaepernick was first in air yards among quarterbacks who finished with over 1,500 passing yards, according to Sporting Charts. Alex Smith, whom he replaced midseason, was sixth. The next two seasons, Kaepernick finished fourth and 11th, respectively.
In Baltimore last season, with Roman overseeing the team’s rushing attack, the Ravens’ passing-game philosophy mirrored his own. While the Ravens kept Jackson from a Joe Flacco-esque workload — he averaged just 23.4 attempts per start — the rookie was not cautious in where he looked for completions.
Jackson’s average intended air yards, which includes all attempts, was tied for 13th with Flacco and ahead of Philip Rivers, Ben Roethlisberger and Tom Brady’s, NFL Next Gen Stats data shows. Jackson tied for sixth among qualified quarterbacks with an average of 6.5 air yards per completion — a smidge higher than Kansas City Chiefs star Patrick Mahomes (6.4 air yards per completion).
2. The play-action offense should be good enough to rely on often.
Like a passing attack that sets up the deep ball with shorter throws, Roman’s running schemes lend themselves to high-quality play-action.
From 2011 to 2013, Roman’s first three years in San Francisco, the 49ers ranked fifth, second and third in play-action efficiency, respectively, according to Football Outsiders. In 2015, Roman’s only full year with the Bills, Buffalo was first in play-action efficiency. As measured by DVOA, the analytics website’s measurement of a play’s relative success, Roman’s play-action plays over those four seasons ranged from 50.5 percent to 72.3 percent more efficient than an average play and two to three times more efficient than an average play-action call.
There was perhaps no greater proof of their effectiveness than in a 41-14 win over the Miami Dolphins in 2015. Taylor opened what was perhaps his best-ever game under center (21-for-29, 277 yards, three touchdowns) by completing five straight play-action passes for a 77-yard touchdown drive.
But the Bills, for all their success with the play type, were reluctant to embrace it as San Francisco had. In 2012 and 2013, the 49ers ran play-action on over a quarter of their plays, ranking among the top six teams both years. In 2015, with Football Outsiders’ second-most efficient rushing offense, Buffalo called on its top-rated play-action 17 percent of the time, a usage mark in the league’s bottom third.
The Ravens were not particularly explosive on play-action plays this year, as Flacco lacked a consistently respectable rushing offense and Jackson struggled on passes outside the pocket. But with the team’s high hopes for tight ends Mark Andrews and Hayden Hurst, as well as the running game’s late-season emergence, Roman should have a solid framework for another dependable play-action attack.
3. The passing-game concepts shouldn’t overwhelm Jackson.
In San Francisco and Buffalo, Roman worked, for the most part, with mobile but inexperienced quarterbacks. The success of the 49ers and Bills’ rushing attacks helped alleviate pressure — Smith and Kaepernick finished with top-10 passer ratings in 2012, as Taylor did in 2015 — but their passing schemes shouldn’t be overlooked.
One feature of Roman’s offenses has been a mirrored passing design, which helps to simplify the presnap reads for a quarterback. On a mirrored play design, the route concepts are the same on each side of the formation, meaning it’s usually run out of a “2x2” alignment, with two eligible receivers on either side in a balanced set.
While some offenses prefer more flexible play structures, mirrored concepts ease the quarterback’s decision-making and can be used against almost any defensive call. As the Washington Redskins’ offensive coordinator, Sean McVay helped Kirk Cousins’ development with his use of mirrored designs, which he then carried over to his work with the Los Angeles Rams’ Jared Goff.
Roman’s use of the “Sail” concept, a passing scheme designed to overload and stretch one side of a defense (normally zone) with three receivers, should also play to Jackson’s strengths. According to Sports Info Solutions, in his seven regular-season starts, Jackson completed 63.4 percent of his passes and was on target 74.4 percent of the time against zone defenses. (Those marks dropped to 43.8 percent and 56.3 percent, respectively, against man-to-man coverage.)
Like mirrored passing designs, the “Sail” concept affords a quarterback simple reads in a half-field window. While Jackson struggled with throws to the sideline this past season, he figures to improve with more repetitions as the team’s unquestioned starter. After a half-season of trial-and-error, the Ravens have a long offseason ahead to figure out how Jackson’s talents fit into Roman’s game plans — not only as a runner, but as a passer, too.
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