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The Ravens offense is unique for a reason: 'After a while, these guys don't want to run'

In 1977, the Oakland Raiders set the NFL record for the most rushing attempts in a single season. Over 14 weeks, they ran the ball 681 times, or nearly 49 per game. There were more than two carries for every quarterback drop-back. They went 11-3 in the regular season and advanced to the AFC championship game, where a controversial ruling doomed them in a loss to the Denver Broncos.

Theirs was a dominant offense, No. 1 in scoring and No. 2 in yardage. It was also short-lived. The next season, the Raiders attempted fewer runs, gained fewer rushing yards and won fewer games. It was the last of head coach John Madden’s 10 seasons in Oakland.

Over four decades and several offensive revolutions later, the Ravens have marched to Sunday’s AFC wild-card game against the Los Angeles Chargers with an offense belonging to another time and space. Since rookie quarterback Lamar Jackson took over in Week 11, they have turned football convention on its head, passing less than 38 percent of the time (excluding kneel-downs) in a league where only one other team dared go under half in 2018. Jackson set the single-season record for rushing attempts by a quarterback despite making just seven starts, winning six.

It is an offense unlike any others, players, coaches and analysts said, well-suited to Jackson’s unique talents and a constricting Ravens defense. But it is an offense, like the Raiders’ of yesteryear, also unlikely to last. What makes it difficult to stop — the novelty of the play calls, the threat of an athletic quarterback as a runner — is also what will force it to evolve, to morph into something more aligned with NFL norms.

“Is it sustainable through a playoff run? Of course,” said Matt Bowen, a former NFL safety and current ESPN analyst who highlighted Jackson’s rushing ability this week on the network’s “NFL Matchup” show. “Over the course of his career? No, I think that number [of carries] needs to drop.”

Coach John Harbaugh has long defended the throwing ability of the Ravens’ No. 32 overall draft pick, declaring after Jackson’s first start in mid-November, “He’s a quarterback!” But since taking over for prototypical pocket passer Joe Flacco, Jackson has been even less of a thrower than he was in his final season at Louisville. Despite averaging about as many carries per game for the Ravens as he did for the Cardinals in 2017, he’s attempting over 10 fewer passes.

That has not seemed to bother Jackson much. He has missed just one quarter because of injury, and even that was precautionary; left tackle Ronnie Stanley’s foot accidentally clipped Jackson in the helmet in Week 13, prompting him to enter concussion protocol. Ravens coaches have urged him to protect himself better in the open field. But winning, Jackson said, is paramount.

“I hate losing,” he said last month. “I hate that feeling. You have to deal with it the next week. You have to focus on the next opponent. So I want to win regardless. … I’ve been good so far. I’m coming out [if] I get injured. I’ll be good right after the game. So I’m cool.”

While the Ravens’ deployment of Jackson is unprecedented — only 27 quarterbacks ever have reached 100 carries in a season, and he has an NFL-record 147 — their offensive schemes are not. High-flying offenses like the Kansas City Chiefs’ and Los Angeles Rams’ rely on misdirection and presnap motion to juice their aerial attacks, Bowen said. The Ravens use it to get Jackson into the open field.

Early in the second quarter of the Ravens’ win-and-they’re-in game Sunday against the Cleveland Browns, Jackson lined up in the shotgun formation, with running back Ty Montgomery to his right. At the snap of the ball, Jackson faked a handoff, freezing the Browns’ two leftmost linebackers as Montgomery ran toward them, while Stanley and left guard James Hurst swung around the right side of the line.

The designed run called for Jackson to hit the hole created by the pulling linemen, and he did, eluding the Browns’ one hope for a tackle with a graceful sidestep. Jackson scored from 8 yards out, his jersey never having been touched.

Bowen said the Ravens’ ground game mixes college spread-style and pro-style concepts. But even “the downhill stuff that everyone else runs,” Bowen said, is framed differently: The Ravens often will have bruising backs Gus Edwards and Kenneth Dixon take inside handoffs out of the shotgun or pistol formation, forcing edge defenders to account for the possibility of Jackson keeping the ball himself.

“I think they've done an excellent job with Lamar and catering the offense to him and putting him in a position to produce and also creating an enormous amount of stress for opposing defenses,” Bowen said.

“It's just misdirection, but [it’s] putting the football in your playmaker's hands and giving him blockers at the point of attack, so he can get into the open field. Because when he gets in the open field, and you take a false step as a safety, you're not going to recover against Lamar Jackson. You're not.”

In the Ravens’ run to their first postseason appearance in four years, Jackson has faced some of the NFL’s worst rushing defenses. Bowen cautioned that “defenses always adjust,” and the Chargers forced three straight three-and-outs toward the end of their 22-10 loss to the Ravens in Week 16. Asked Thursday whether the Chargers’ familiarity with the Ravens offense could be an asset in a rematch, offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg talked briefly about the weather before offering a nonanswer.

Former Washington Redskins and Houston Texans general manager and current NFL Network analyst Charley Casserly said the Ravens offense has given them an edge against opponents that have had, at most, 10 days to prepare for the unfamiliar. “It's the only time you'll ever see it,” he explained.

As for why: “Teams don't have the quarterback run the ball,” he said, for the same reason that three of the past four No. 1 overall picks were quarterbacks, for the same reason that the league’s highest-paid players are quarterbacks. The position has primacy in the NFL. Because there is no player more valuable than the starting quarterback, there is no play potentially more destabilizing than one that risks his health.

“This is an offense that was never run because people were afraid the quarterback would be hurt,” Casserly said. “And in my experience, … after a while, these guys don't want to run. They want to throw. So at some point, [Jackson’s] going to figure out, 'Well, I'm a drop-back quarterback. I'm not a runner.' And you're going to have to tackle with that. Or he's going to figure it out because he's getting hit too many times.”

That is a matter for the offseason. For now, Jackson and the Ravens will run as if their season depends on it. They will evolve when they have to.

Robert Griffin III did. The Ravens’ third-string quarterback took the NFL by storm as a rookie by spearheading an offense reliant on many of the same concepts the Ravens have employed this season. But knee injuries eventually caught up to him. He sat out all of last season before signing a one-year deal with the Ravens, whom he’d impressed with his passing.

Griffin said it doesn’t matter that the Chargers and the NFL know Jackson and the Ravens want to run. On Thursday, he hesitated to put Jackson, only 21 years old, in the same “rare air” as an NBA legend. He offered the comparison anyway: Didn’t NBA defenses know Michael Jordan was going to try fadeaway jumper after fadeaway jumper, too?

“When your talent's supposed to show, it'll show, just like when Mike was out there, backing guys down, shooting fadeaways,” Griffin said. “Sometimes it's hard to stop.”

jshaffer@baltsun.com

twitter.com/jonas_shaffer

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