Ask John Harbaugh about his passing game, and the Ravens coach might end bragging about his running game. Can you blame him, really?
Set the NFL’s single-season rushing record, rack up 39 straight games of 100-plus yards, turn Lamar Jackson into the most dangerous running quarterback in league history by Year 3, and you might find yourself saying things like, “We’ve spent the last two-and-a-half years or so building probably one of the most creative run games in the history of the National Football League,” too.
But back to those questions about the passing game. There were a lot of them in March, when Harbaugh boasted about his running game — “probably the most successful” in league history, he added, just for good measure. There are a lot of them now, as the Ravens kick off their season Monday night against the Las Vegas Raiders.
A lot will be made clear inside Allegiant Stadium. Expectations have never been higher for this Jackson-led aerial attack, bolstered by offseason additions out wide and up front, and the list of injuries for the Jackson-led ground game has never been longer. If the offense’s identity is headed for an inflection point, it could get there sooner than expected.
And if there are clues to be offered about the Ravens’ direction, well, coordinator Greg Roman’s not the one to give them up.
“We’re really excited about everything,” he said Saturday. “I think we’ve put a lot of work in that [passing game], but we’ve put a lot of work into everything. So this is the kind of game, the first game, you’re not quite sure what you’re going to get. So you have to go into that game with a lot of options and see how that game plays out — what are they trying to take away and that type of thing. As always, offensive football, it’s all about execution. So that’s what we’re working for.”
What the Ravens have been working for is an offense that hums like it did in 2019, when the ground game rolled up an NFL-record 3,296 yards, Jackson led the league with 36 passing touchdowns, and Roman ended the regular season with football’s most efficient rushing and passing offenses, according to Football Outsiders.
What fans and experts have been waiting for is something different. The Ravens ended last season with the NFL’s fewest passing yards, with Jackson throwing for just 162 yards in three quarters of a playoff defeat, with a wide receiver group considered among the league’s worst. Harbaugh has had a creative rushing attack, a record-breaking rushing attack. And yet, in three straight disappointing postseason exits, it has not been enough.
The Ravens haven’t ignored their shortcomings. In the months after their 17-3 loss to the Buffalo Bills, in which they set a season low for points, they upgraded their interior offensive line. They not only signed Sammy Watkins and drafted Rashod Bateman but also hired two highly regarded wide receiver coaches. They got a full offseason of workouts in for Jackson, who is throwing the ball as well as he ever has.
Now they have to figure out just what balance to strike between the run and the pass, between what’s reliable and what’s fashionable. When Harbaugh spoke at the 2020 team’s end-of-season news conference in January, he indicated that he did not necessarily want to pass more. He did want to pass more efficiently. What might that look like? It’s hard to say before a snap is played.
“That’s the art of the whole thing, and it’s week to week,” Harbaugh said Thursday. “There are big-picture observations, or what it looks like, but there’s also attacking the opponent from a game-plan standpoint. Also, in-game, what are they doing to you? You’re trying to move the ball. You’re trying to get first downs. You’re trying to find a way to score in battle, so to speak. So it all just kind of falls together in terms of specific opportunities to be successful on offense and win games. That’s really all you’re trying to do. So we’ll see as we go.”
In an increasingly pass-first, pass-second NFL, the Ravens remain an outlier. While Roman pushed back this offseason on the team’s run-heavy narrative — “There are more passing plays per year than running plays,” he said in April — no team has run as often as the Ravens.
Since Jackson took over as starter in November 2018, the Ravens have led the NFL in run play percentage. Last year, all but three teams passed more than they ran, and more than a third finished with a pass play share above 60%. The Ravens’ rate, meanwhile, was just 45%; the New England Patriots were next closest, at 48.7%.
After the preseason the Ravens had, Roman could be forgiven for wanting to put his running backs in bubble wrap and trade in his play sheet for an Air Raid playbook. In a 13-day span, he lost running backs J.K. Dobbins, Gus Edwards and Justice Hill to season-ending injuries and tight end Nick Boyle to a short-term stint on injured reserve.
The Ravens’ injury bug didn’t spare their wide receivers. Bateman, the team’s top pick in the draft, is out until at least Week 4 while he recovers from a groin injury. Miles Boykin, a starter at wide receiver over his first two years in Baltimore, has joined him on IR. Marquise “Hollywood” Brown missed most of training camp with his own hamstring injury. Watkins arrived with a checkered medical history and sat out the preseason.
But it’s not hard to look at the bright side. Or at least the brighter side: No active receiver landed on the injury report this week, and tight end Mark Andrews is still Jackson’s most trusted target. The NFL’s most depleting preseason might ultimately push Jackson and the Ravens to play more like the rest of the league.
It could take some getting used to. NBC analyst and former New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees said in a conference call last month that the Ravens’ offensive success “is very much predicated on their ability to run the ball.” Still, his NBC colleague Rodney Harrison argued, would that approach really be enough to change the narrative?
“I was there when they got their butts kicked by Buffalo in the playoffs because Lamar couldn’t push the ball down the field,” said Harrison, a former NFL safety and current “Football Night in America” analyst. “Yeah, there was some weather, but at the end of the day, we know they’re going to run the football. They’re going to have success running the football. For them to get to the Super Bowl — and that’s the goal, to win a Super Bowl … they’re not just going to run to get in the Super Bowl. ...
“When I look at it, Drew, in order to get to the Super Bowl, you’re playing against Kansas City, you’re going to be playing against the Chargers, you’re going to be playing against a team like the Patriots, and they’re going to pass the ball. All these teams can run the ball, but you’ve got to pass the ball to get to that next level.”
As for how much? Ravens officials don’t seem to care for where the team ranks in volume stats. Having the NFL’s 32nd-ranked passing attack does not mean having the NFL’s worst passing attack. “We’re a running football team,” general manager Eric DeCosta said in January. And a good one, too. They finished with the NFL’s third-most efficient rushing offense last season, according to Football Outsiders — and 17th-most efficient passing offense. Said DeCosta: “I think that we want to be more efficient.”
However the Ravens want to drive downfield in 2021, the Raiders might be an ideal crash test dummy for Week 1. They finished last season with one the NFL’s worst rushing and passing defenses. Pro Football Focus rated them as one of the league’s weakest overall entering the preseason. The first time Jackson opened the season on the road against a subpar defense, in 2019, he posted a perfect passer rating against the Miami Dolphins.
But the former NFL Most Valuable Player can’t say how this offense will look in prime time. “We haven’t played the first game yet,” he said Thursday. “I don’t know.” Jackson has never been shy about his Super Bowl aspirations. Nor has he bristled at the opportunity to play more like his so-called “GOATs,” Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers.
Jackson’s championship hopes could hinge on how closely he can mirror them. By now, defenses know what the Ravens’ rushing attack can do. Few teams have been able to stop it. The challenge for Harbaugh and Roman is figuring out where Jackson runs into trouble, and where he can pass with flying colors.
“The pressure is always going to be on the quarterback, and maybe even more so on Lamar because of what he does with his legs,” ESPN analyst and former NFL quarterback Brian Griese said last week. “I don’t see that changing this year.”
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