When the Ravens drafted Lamar Jackson in the first round of April’s NFL draft, eulogies were all but written for the Ravens offense as we knew it. Out would go the underperforming Joe Flacco and the team’s predictable attack, a mix of short passes and power running. In would come Jackson and an innovative, blink-and-you-miss-it onslaught.
These predictions were premature, of course. Flacco has been perhaps the offense’s most consistent weapon a week and a half through training camp. Jackson has looked like most rookie quarterbacks do against the Ravens defense: promising but still unpolished, athletic but often inaccurate.
In one crucial way, though, the offense is distancing itself somewhat from the familiar rhythms of recent years. The team’s offseason evolution has pointed coordinator Marty Mornhinwheg’s system toward one similar to Jackson’s at Louisville. The Ravens, like most of the NFL, are embracing a pro-style offense with run-pass-option (RPO) elements.
One season after finishing with the fewest RPO plays in the league, nearly six months after watching the Philadelphia Eagles tear apart the New England Patriots’ defense with a well-balanced attack that included RPOs, the Ravens should look different on offense this season, even if their quarterback is the same.
“It’s a little bit more part of the offense,” Mornhinweg recently said of RPOs. “You know, our base is this and we do these things and it makes the base very good. If you don’t do these things, you get slapped in the face when you [don’t do them well]. It’s part of this now instead of that.”
Part of the appeal, defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale said Thursday, is the ease of use. A quarterback’s reads are simpler in RPOs. Lining up in the shotgun, he can make a pre- or postsnap read on where to force the action. At the snap of the ball, the quarterback rides the handoff to the running back and examines his options.
If the “conflict” defender — normally a linebacker, but sometimes a slot cornerback or safety in the box — hangs back as the play unfolds, the quarterback completes the handoff to the running back, who has one less defender at the line of scrimmage to worry about.
But if the conflict defender crashes down at the hint of a run, the quarterback keeps the ball, surveys his options, sets his feet and throws to a receiver running a fast-developing route. Out wide, it might be a bubble screen. Down the middle, maybe a seam route from a slot receiver or tight end.
All the while, the linemen up front are run-blocking. Their downfield movement is crucial. Normally, on pass plays, they shuffle back. On running plays, they drive forward. The conflict defender can make the right read and still lose out.
“It puts a lot” of pressure on defenses, Ravens rookie center Bradley Bozeman said Saturday. He was part of an Alabama offense last season that leaned on RPOs through the Crimson Tide’s run to the national championship. “It’s a run and a pass option, and sometimes there’s three options in there, depending on the play. So it makes defenses stay true to what they do.”
Under NCAA rules, the deception is easier. College offensive linemen may block up to 3 yards downfield on a passing play; in the NFL, the limit is just 1 yard. Although the league’s enforcement is inconsistent, the smaller margin for error informs the type of RPO plays normally called. Run blocking that flows horizontally, such as the zone, power and trap schemes employed to great effect with the Ravens’ Alex Collins last season, is often a good fit.
"I think that it takes the sting away from the whole defense,” left tackle Ronnie Stanley said of RPOs. “It gives them another thing to think about, to worry about all week, and I think it's a great dynamic that we have in our offense."
Mornhinwheg said the Ravens have used RPOs over the years, but only sparingly. Last season, according to Pro Football Focus, the Ravens used 11 RPOs in 16 games, the fewest in the league. In the Super Bowl alone, according to Pro Football Focus, the Eagles ran nine RPOs; for the season, 181.
But RPOs are not essential to a thriving offense’s DNA. The Los Angeles Rams, New England Patriots and San Francisco 49ers finished with the second, third and fourth fewest RPOs last season, respectively, and all finished in the top 12 in yards per game. At Louisville, Jackson oversaw a pro-style offense sprinkled with RPO action, and he became the first player in NCAA history to put together back-to-back seasons with over 3,000 passing yards and 1,000 rushing yards.
“We had some college coaches come in and talk to us [over the offseason] about it and how they see it,” Martindale said. “We’re seeing it a little bit differently than how they see it in college, in the college game. It really helped us, and it’s really helped us defensively get a grasp of it all, because there are a lot of teams that are going to it.”
And for good reason. According to Pro Football Focus, RPOs last season gained over a yard per play (5.01) more than traditional handoffs with no quarterback option (3.95). It helps to have an athletic quarterback with a quick release — the Kansas City Chiefs' Alex Smith (now with the Washington Redskins) and the Green Bay Packers' Aaron Rodgers helmed the two offenses with the next-most RPOs in 2017, after the Eagles — but Flacco’s talents could be well tailored to RPOs. And for the same type of reasons he was criticized last season.
Flacco was the NFL's fourth-most accurate quarterback on "open" passes last season, according to Pro Football Focus, which for the Ravens meant easy dump-offs and frustrating check-downs. RPOs wouldn’t necessarily turn a play that normally ends up 3 yards short of the sticks into a first down, but it would theoretically open up the field for Ravens receivers. That might be enough to get the offense moving — and keep the talk of Jackson’s offensive makeover to a whisper.
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“I think that’s honestly all good stuff,” Flacco said of RPOs. “It puts stress on the defense. I think it opens up lanes for the running backs, so I think those are definitely good things when you pick to do them in the right spots.”