To appreciate what the Ravens’ offense has become under quarterback Lamar Jackson, consider where it started.
In Week 11 of the 2018 season, Jackson, then a 21-year-old rookie backing up a banged-up Joe Flacco, made his first career start. The Ravens were facing the Bengals, who in their Week 2 meeting in Cincinnati had allowed just 66 rushing yards. That was not an effective deterrent. To inaugurate his first drive as a starter, Jackson handed the ball off. Then he ran it himself. Then another handoff. Then another keeper. By the time running back Alex Collins reached the end zone, the Ravens had covered 66 yards in 11 plays, not one of them a pass.
As Jackson rose to stardom over the next three years, his success became inextricable from the offense’s identity: He was a dual-threat quarterback in a run-heavy offense in a pass-happy league. Jackson’s arm talent was abundant — he led the NFL in passing touchdowns in 2019 and set franchise and NFL single-game records for passing yards and accuracy, respectively, last year — but his rushing ability supercharged one of the sport’s best-ever running attacks. More often than not, Jackson made the math work for offensive coordinator Greg Roman.
Entering Sunday’s showdown with the Super Bowl favorite Buffalo Bills, the Ravens’ offensive efficiency has become as remarkable as their inverted approach. A run-first team has become a pass-first team, turning early downs into big-play opportunities and showcasing Jackson’s improvements as one of the NFL’s most well-rounded quarterbacks.
“It’s not the Ravens of the past no more,” Jackson said after a Week 2 loss to the Miami Dolphins, a game in which the Ravens averaged 8.8 yards per play — one of their highest-ever rates — despite paltry contributions from their running backs. “This is the NFL; it’s a new era. We’ve got to play ball. We’ve got to know that if the passing is working, we’ve got to keep passing it if we’re doing it.”
They haven’t stopped yet. According to analytics website RBSDM.com, the Ravens’ early-down pass rate — which measures how often a team passes on first or second down, except during garbage time — through three games is 63.6%, sixth highest in the NFL. Their matchup against Buffalo now profiles less as an old-school-versus-new-school battle and more as a modern NFL air show; the Bills, led by star quarterback Josh Allen, rank second in early-down pass rate (68.1%), behind only the Kansas City Chiefs (69.5%).
The Ravens’ philosophical shift, until this season’s opening month, was gradual. In 2019, when Jackson won NFL Most Valuable Player honors after overseeing the league’s most efficient rushing and passing offense, the Ravens were last in the NFL in early-down run rate (43.4%). One year later, they were 30th (44.6%).
Last year, with injuries hurting the Ravens’ run game and a leaky defense forcing the offense to play catch-up, they ranked 12th in early-down pass rate (54.3%) — and fared well, ranking in the top 11 in both first- and second-down efficiency, according to Football Outsiders. It was a new look for quarterback and play-caller alike. Never before in Greg Roman’s four seasons with the San Francisco 49ers (2011 to 2014) and one full year with the Bills (2015) had an offense he coordinated finished above even 52% in early-down pass rate.
After an offseason and training camp in which Jackson passed as well as he ever has, if not better, the Ravens did not wait long to test out their proof of concept. They threw the ball on nearly three-quarters of their early downs in Week 1 against the New York Jets, then on over 60% of their early downs against the Dolphins. Even Sunday, when their rushing attack finally broke out in a win against the New England Patriots, the Ravens were among the NFL’s more pass-inclined teams.
“I try to mix it up,” Roman said last Thursday. “This time of year, we’re still kind of figuring out who we are, so I think I’ll get a better feel for that. It will change week to week; sometimes we’ll throw it more, sometimes we’ll run it more, but it’s going to be a week-to-week thing. I definitely think that the passing game is improving, but this is a whole new week, and we just have to keep getting better.”
Jackson said Wednesday that opponents this season have sometimes lined up on early downs as if they’re expecting the Ravens to turn back the clock. But defensive resources are finite. Teams committing to stopping Roman’s run game have opened up throwing lanes for a much-improved passing attack. According to the play index site nflfastR, the Ravens are averaging 10 yards on first-down pass plays (including scrambles) and 7.1 yards on second-down pass plays. Buffalo is averaging 6.5 yards and 7.1 yards, respectively, in those situations.
The Ravens’ early-down success has kept their offense on schedule and Jackson in command. Already an MVP front-runner, he’s first in the NFL in passer rating and fifth in rushing yards. Entering Week 4, the Ravens lead the NFL in points per game (33.0), yards per play (6.9) and offensive DVOA, a measure of efficiency.
“It’s Greg Roman and the offensive staff realizing people are going to play them a certain way,” CBS NFL analyst Charles Davis, who’ll call Sunday’s game in Baltimore, said in an interview. “I mean, they’re the Baltimore Ravens; you run the football, and you run it quite effectively. So when you throw the ball in the early downs, that’s countering what they planned for. … So I just think it’s Greg Roman and this staff saying, ‘Hey, we know how you’re going to play us,’ because we’ve earned that by how we run the ball. So we’re going to go counter to that and see if you’re going to adjust.”
Coach John Harbaugh, who lauded the Ravens’ “revolutionary” offense ahead of their record-breaking 2019 season, said Monday that “evolution kind of happens as it goes.” Amid departures from their passing game (wide receiver Marquise “Hollywood” Brown) and injuries to their running game (running backs J.K. Dobbins and Gus Edwards) over the past year, the Ravens have tinkered and tweaked. Their offense is still unique, just in new ways.
“If you ask any defensive coordinator or head coach in this league, they’ll tell you that this offense is hard to defend,” Harbaugh said. “So that’s a pretty good measuring stick, right there. Now, executing and then keeping it going and coming up with ways to keep people off balance, that’s what coaches do, that’s what coordinators do. I really believe Greg is one of the very best in the business at that.”
The Bills won’t make anything easy Sunday. Despite a slew of injuries to key contributors, Buffalo has the NFL’s second-best pass defense and fifth-best rushing defense, according to Football Outsiders. If Roman and Jackson want to test an injury-ridden secondary, he’ll have to trust his protection against a fearsome pass rush. If they want to establish the run, they’ll have to overcome a defense that tackles the ball carrier at or behind the line of scrimmage nearly 30% of the time, one of the NFL’s best rates.
So: run or pass? Doesn’t matter to Ravens guard Kevin Zeitler. Inside the locker room Wednesday, he couldn’t even hazard a guess about how much the run-first offense he’d joined before the 2021 season had changed.
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“You know, I honestly haven’t really thought about it too much,” Zeitler said. He added: “Teams like to do what they’re good at. If it’s passing, great. If it’s running, great. And I think if it works, it’s going to work.”
Sunday, 1 p.m.
TV: Chs. 13, 9
Radio: 97.9 FM, 101.5 FM, 1090 AM
Line: Bills by 3