The greatest half the Ravens’ offense has had all season was also its strangest.
They came within 1 yard of four straight touchdown drives. They averaged 8.8 yards per play. They converted all three of their third downs and two of three 2-point attempts. And in lighting up the Indianapolis Colts for 22 points and 307 yards in the second half of Monday night’s dramatic win, a Ravens attack that was on the verge of NFL rushing history, that has been as consistent on the ground as potholes in Baltimore, called just four running plays.
As the Ravens (4-1) approach Sunday’s showdown against the Los Angeles Chargers (4-1), their offense is through the looking glass. Quarterback Lamar Jackson, long criticized for his lack of polish, is setting NFL passing records. Greg Roman, maybe the NFL’s most run-heavy coordinator over the past decade, is calling for drop-backs where he once called for handoffs. And a vaunted running attack, one that team officials have ranked among the league’s greatest ever, now finds itself stuck in quicksand.
It is not an identity crisis, because identity crises rarely produce offenses that lead the NFL in yards per game and rank second in yards per play. But it is … something.
“The big-picture stuff [on offense], like I said, all of that stuff, I really haven’t sat back and thought about the evolution of it,” coach John Harbaugh said recently. “We’re just trying to do the best we can the next week.”
For most of Jackson’s tenure as starting quarterback, the offense’s path downfield has been one rarely traveled elsewhere. In 2019, when he won NFL Most Valuable Player honors, the Ravens finished with the league’s fourth-fewest pass attempts. Last season, no one passed less often.
And in both years, no one ran for more yards. No one came close.
“Let’s not forget now that we have a running attack that’s probably the best in football, and probably the best in the history of football,” general manager Eric DeCosta said at the team’s season-ending news conference in January, nine days after the Ravens’ playoff loss to the Buffalo Bills. It was the team’s fourth straight game with fewer than 200 passing yards. Twice at the presser, DeCosta told reporters, “We are a running team.”
And for about seven months, the Ravens had the personnel to remain the NFL’s best running team. Then, beginning in late August, knees started popping and injury timetables started changing. Running back J.K. Dobbins tore his ACL 12 days before Gus Edwards tore his. Tight end Nick Boyle returned to practice, then returned to the injured reserve with a knee injury. Left tackle Ronnie Stanley was “pretty close” to his pre-ankle-injury form, and then he wasn’t.
Over the season’s first two weeks, the Ravens’ early returns suggested Jackson’s presence was more than enough. They rushed for 189 yards against the Las Vegas Raiders, 251 against the Kansas City Chiefs and at least 5.6 yards per carry in both. When Roman wanted to keep quarterback Patrick Mahomes off the field late in their Week 2 matchup, he effectively ended the game with a fourth-and-1 run, a throwback to Jackson’s go-ahead score in Seattle during the Ravens’ record-setting 2019.
Over the past three weeks, however, it’s as if their power has gone out. In wins over the Detroit Lions, Denver Broncos and Colts, the Ravens have averaged 66.3 rushing yards and 3.2 yards per carry on nonscrambles. Indianapolis, one of the NFL’s best run defenses, ended the Ravens’ NFL-record-tying 43-game streak of 100-plus rushing yards Monday night, holding them to 86 yards overall. Latavius Murray, the Ravens’ starting running back, had 17.
In Baltimore, that constitutes a staggering drop-off, akin to the Chiefs’ passing offense turning into the New York Jets’ for nearly a month. From 2019 to 2020, according to RBSDM.com, the Ravens easily led the NFL in expected points added on running plays, which exclude scrambles. (EPA is a measure of efficiency that accounts for situational factors such as down, distance and field position.) Since Week 3, the Ravens rank last in EPA on running plays.
Roman said Thursday that the Ravens “game-plan for everything” — run-heavy strategies, pass-heavy strategies, balanced strategies. No one in the NFL, though, could have expected that. Not with Jackson’s speed and Roman’s run schemes stressing defenses.
“I think you have to look at really every play and examine why that play worked or didn’t work,” Roman said Thursday. “Some of it is on me. I have to maybe run different runs and that kind of thing. Some of it is just, we have to get better in certain areas. But the other answer could be, I’m just setting the people up to throw it.”
The Ravens have been doing a lot of that lately. In game situations with a reasonable win probability (20% to 80%), they rank 15th in the NFL in early-down pass frequency, and sixth over the past three weeks. Over 2019 and 2020, they were last.
Jackson has given Roman no reason to reverse course. On first down this season, he’s completed 70.7% of his passes for 8.6 yards per attempt. On second down, he’s up to 71.7% accuracy and 10.7 yards per attempt. Chargers star Justin Herbert, by contrast, is averaging 6.3 yards and 7.5 yards per attempt on first and second down, respectively, with lower completion rates.
On Monday, against an injury-depleted Colts pass defense, the Ravens made use of play-action, as they often have, and Jackson thrived. But when, late in their 19-point comeback, Jackson didn’t have time for run fakes, he starred just the same.
According to Pro Football Focus, Jackson’s 16 fourth-quarter drop-backs didn’t feature one instance of play-action. He still finished the quarter with 146 yards on 12-for-14 passing. He finished the game with a franchise-record 442 passing yards and the highest completion rate (86%) for a passer with over 40 attempts in NFL history.
“I was really trying to win — that’s all it was,” Jackson said Wednesday. “The line just gave excellent protection, and I just saw the lane, saw my guys coming open. Those guys were doing a great job at getting open, and I just had to deliver the ball to the playmakers, and they did the rest.”
“As I always say, you can’t be a one-trick pony,” Roman said of the offense’s versatility. “Obviously, that was an epic performance. We strive for epic, and that was epic.”
The Ravens’ game plan for Sunday could look a lot different than Monday’s, and not just because rookie wide receiver Rashod Bateman is likely to play, and Sammy Watkins (hamstring) is not. The Colts have the NFL’s second-most efficient run defense, according to Football Outsiders. The Chargers’ is the second-worst, ahead of only the Chiefs’. They allowed 230 rushing yards and 6.6 yards per carry in a shootout win Sunday over the Cleveland Browns.
It’s a glaring weakness. It’s also partly by design. Under coach Brandon Staley, the Chargers just about dare teams to run. According to ESPN, opposing offenses this season have had at least as many blockers as the Chargers have had defenders in the box on 87% of their carries, the second-highest rate in the NFL. With star inside linebacker Drue Tranquill (chest) not expected to play Sunday, the pass-wary Chargers should have even less margin for error up front.
The Ravens, Roman said, had “better be prepared for everything.” As they did over the first half of last season, opposing defenses have shown one tendency on tape, only to change things up against Jackson and the Ravens.
Amid the push and pull of NFL strategy, it’s no longer clear whether there’s more to fear from the team’s dormant but potent ground game or its burgeoning aerial attack. Roman called just four running plays in the second half Monday. He probably wouldn’t mind calling just four pass plays in the first half Sunday.
Baltimore Ravens Insider
“We can change gears. We can change personalities, hopefully, just like that,” Roman said, snapping his fingers for effect. “But we’re going to run the football and do things to complement that. But that’s something that we just have to keep hammering away at. I think we have a lot of things at our disposal.”
Sunday, 1 p.m.
TV: Chs. 13, 9
Radio: 97.9 FM, 1090 AM
Line: Ravens by 2 1/2