Ravens tight end Nick Boyle is so valued, so consistent as a blocker, his apparent blunders seem to mandate greater scrutiny, like a sink that won’t run or a workday without email. That was the case on one second-quarter play Sunday.
On second-and-2 at Cincinnati’s 27-yard line, Boyle lined up to the right of right tackle Orlando Brown Jr. as tight end Hayden Hurst motioned across the line of scrimmage and then back behind Boyle. As quarterback Lamar Jackson faked a handoff to running back Gus Edwards, Bengals defensive end Sam Hubbard burst off the line and dipped underneath a half-hearted push from Boyle.
Boyle’s intention was not to have Jackson sacked, as he was. The play was a slip screen; Brown had released downfield, looking for someone to bulldoze. As soon as Hubbard was past him, Boyle clapped his hands, as if to say, “Throw it now.” And Jackson seemingly would have, had Bengals linebacker Hardy Nickerson not, at the last moment, diverted his route from Jackson to Boyle. There was no throw to make.
As the Ravens continue to retrofit their offense to the skills of Jackson, who’s set to make his second straight start Sunday against the Oakland Raiders, Boyle could be a surprising beneficiary. The forgotten man on a depth chart with perhaps the NFL's top rookie tight end, Mark Andrews, and the team’s top draft pick, Hayden Hurst, Boyle played as many snaps on offense Sunday (53) as any nonlineman. He was a player in perpetual motion, as newly dynamic as the team’s schemes: moving here and there before the snap, catching every pass thrown his way (four for 36 yards), incapacitating Cincinnati defenders with blocks that sprang Ravens runners for big plays.
“Going into that week, our offensive scheme was a little tailored, obviously, to Lamar, with his skill set, compared to Joe's,” Boyle said Wednesday, referring to quarterback Joe Flacco, who will again miss Sunday’s game with a right hip injury. “It had a lot to do with the run game and different types of pulling and everything we had to do. I think that plays to my role a little bit, the way I can help in the run game and also in the pass game with Lamar. I think all the tight ends, with our capabilities, can do that.”
And yet it was not Hurst or Andrews who caught the first pass Jackson threw in his first NFL start. The answer to that trivia question: Boyle, whose 4-yard gain on the Ravens’ second drive ended a streak of 13 straight running plays.
It was also Boyle who capped his day as a receiver with a pair of 16-yard completions, the first on a play-action bootleg that left him wide open in the right flat, the second on a run-pass-option play that left him, yes, wide open in the middle of the field. It was Boyle who often was Jackson’s personal escort on zone-read plays. And it was Boyle whom the Ravens entrusted with the slip screen.
“You kind of are a Swiss Army knife tight end,” coach John Harbaugh said, echoing Boyle’s description of his role in a Jackson-led offense. “I used to coach the tight ends in college [at Pittsburgh], and those guys are involved in every part of the offense, you know? Obviously, blocking, pass blocking, run game, pass game, routes downfield, short routes, screens — just everything that you do, the tight ends are very much involved in. So with this offense, that kind of expands into the world that Lamar takes us probably even more so.”
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That the Ravens relied more on Jackson’s legs Sunday than they ever have on Flacco’s was not surprising. How their tight ends would help, though — not to mention how often — was an open question. In Jackson’s last full series under center before Sunday, the offense ran seven straight plays with “11” personnel (one tight end, one running back and three wide receivers) late in the Ravens’ Week 8 loss to the the Carolina Panthers. The deployment made sense: Jackson is a dual-threat quarterback, so why clog the middle of the field with another tight end or fullback?
But against Cincinnati, according to an unofficial tally of the 73 plays they ran on offense excluding those negated by penalties and their end-of-game kneel-downs, the Ravens used two-tight-end formations 31 times. With Hurst and Andrews in, they scored their first touchdown on an RPO that Jackson handed off to running back Alex Collins. With just Boyle in, they scored, too — Edwards running behind Boyle, a 2015 fifth-round draft pick, and Brown on a zone read.
“With all our tight ends, with all the different formations we could line up and all the different looks that we can give the defense with the tight ends, the wideouts, especially with Lamar in there, they don't know what's going to happen,” Boyle said. “So it has a lot of different looks, and it makes the defense play a little slower.”
How much Boyle’s role will change with Jackson under center is still unclear. He has not exactly lacked for playing time this season, having seen over 100 more snaps (414) than both Collins (311), the team’s starting running back, and Andrews (263), its top receiving tight end.
But in the final season of his four-year rookie deal, Boyle is on pace to finish 2018 with 275 receiving yards, 29 completions and 50 targets, all career highs. He knows what’s missing, of course: a touchdown. He last reached the end zone in 2014, when he was a senior at Delaware.
Perhaps Jackson can change that, as he already did for fellow tight end Hurst. Maybe the next time Boyle claps his hands on a passing play, it will be in celebration, not anticipation.
“It's cool,” Boyle said. “Whenever it happens, it happens. I tell people, 'Man, if I'm going to go out there and play well, whether it's 101 run blocks and they're all great run blocks, then I'm satisfied.' It'll be fun when it comes, whenever it comes.”