The first time Lamar Jackson dropped back to pass this season, the Ravens asked Patrick Ricard for help. This was back in Week 1, when their offense was still run-first, their Pro Bowl fullback was something of a pass-blocking neophyte, and no one outside Las Vegas knew Yannick Ngakoue was back to being one of the NFL’s best pass rushers.
The play, almost two months later, now feels like a window into what became the 2021 Ravens’ future on offense — and Ricard’s, too. It was second-and-8 because the Ravens hadn’t found much daylight against the Raiders’ run defense. It was a play-action pass because there was still much to fear about the Ravens’ ground game. And there was Ricard on Ngakoue, shuffling and bending and blocking, keeping his quarterback unbothered for three, maybe four seconds as he dropped back, before Jackson bolted out of the pocket for a first-down scramble.
If he hadn’t realized it already, Ricard gets it now. In a season full of revelations for the Ravens’ offense, his was one of the most urgent: Pass protection is hard work.
“I can see why offensive linemen get paid so much to do it,” he said during an interview last week. “It’s not one of those things where you get to have nine good pass protections, and then on one, give up a sack. That’s where they’re going to be really looking at. It’s like, ‘Oh, you gave up a sack.’ And that’s how it is for offensive linemen. They can have 30 pass protections, and you give up one sack, and they’re going to get looked at so badly by that one sack.”
As the Ravens regroup from their bye week, there is maybe no player in a spot more interesting than Ricard’s. He has been a constant on the Ravens’ most successful passing packages. He has been the dependable lead blocker on a rushing attack that’s no longer bowling defenses over. And he has molded his game over the past year to play more like the teammate who could be back from injury as soon as Sunday’s game against the Minnesota Vikings.
The Ravens’ plans for Ricard over the second half of this season could signal their broader plans for Greg Roman’s offense. When wide receiver Sammy Watkins recovers from a thigh injury, will they favor spread attacks that highlight their newfound receiving talent? Or, when tight end Nick Boyle’s knee is back to game shape, will they rely once more on their old-school, heavy-personnel groupings? Will the Ravens pass more or less? Will Ricard be a staple or an accessory?
“I’m excited about where our offense could go; I just want to get it there,” coach John Harbaugh said Monday. “Same thing on defense and still on special teams. So you kind of go back and forth between, ‘This is what we’re capable of becoming. These are our issues; these are the areas that we’re going to be kind of what we are, so how can we make the most of that?’ And there are other areas where we have a chance to make a jump, maybe, because of guys getting healthy.
“[There are] other things we can take advantage of, schematically, because of the things we’ve done well that we can kind of build on and add to. All those things, kind of at the bye, you take stock of.”
Ricard isn’t worrying over snap counts or scheme changes. His arrival in Baltimore four years ago as an undrafted defensive lineman ushered in the first of several career-altering transformations. First, he was “Project Pat,” the fullback in training. Then he was “Pancake Pat,” the nearly-300-pound open-field blocker who epitomized a record-breaking, smashmouth rushing attack.
Now he’s all of that, plus a little more — “Pass Pro Pat”? “Play-action Pat”? — making his case week after week as an unlikely cornerstone of one of the NFL’s most compelling offenses. Here’s how Ricard has done it, and how that might change.
Ricard has just three catches for 19 yards this season. He has all of 24 receptions in his career. And yet the Ravens’ passing attack, through seven games, has been most dangerous with him on the field.
In “21″ personnel (two backs, one tight end and two wide receivers), which the Ravens use almost exclusively with Ricard and on 29% of their plays overall, the team is averaging 11.4 yards per pass attempt and 5.5 yards per carry, according to Sharp Football Stats. (The Cincinnati Bengals, by comparison, lead the NFL in yards per attempt this season with 9.1.) Jackson is 51-for-65 (78.5%) for 768 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions, good for a passer rating of 113.3 with the grouping, according to Sports Info Solutions.
In 20 personnel (two backs, no tight ends and three wide receivers), another Ricard-reliant package, the Ravens average even more yards per pass attempt (13.4), though their run game has struggled (3.2 yards per carry). In limited work with the set, Jackson is 7-for-10 (70%) for 122 yards and a touchdown (144.6 passer rating).
So what makes 21 personnel work for the Ravens? Having Jackson helps, of course. But so does having balance. In that grouping, the Ravens’ pass rate is 52%, a nearly equal run-pass split. Unlike with 11 personnel (one back, one tight end and three wide receivers), which the Ravens pass out of 75% of the time, there are no big-picture tendencies for defenses to scheme against.
“I think we’re known as a running team, and we’ve had a lot of success running the ball,” Ricard said. “So I think when they see me in there, they’re probably thinking, ‘OK, they’re running the ball.’ And that’s what I think kind of sucks [the defense] up. Because if they don’t respect our run game, and we do run it, and they don’t respect it and don’t try to play the run, then we’re going to just have positive plays. So they’re going to have to respect it.”
Respect it too much, and the Ravens will offer play-action as a punishment. Almost two-thirds of Jackson’s drop-backs in 21 personnel have come after run fakes, according to SIS. With play-action slowing edge rushers and pulling second-level defenders to the line of scrimmage, Jackson has found himself with time and space to pick secondaries apart. In 48 such drop-backs out of 21 personnel this season, he’s 38-for-47 (80.9%) for 594 yards, a touchdown and an interception (117.0 passer rating).
Maybe most impressive, Jackson’s taken just one sack on those 48 drop-backs. Part of that is by design. The Ravens are content to sacrifice targets for blockers, trusting that wide receivers Marquise “Hollywood” Brown and Watkins and tight end Mark Andrews, given enough time, will find a seam somewhere downfield.
But because of the run designs baked into the Ravens’ play-action schemes, Ricard often finds himself on the perimeter of their pass-protection plans, jousting with Pro Bowl-level defensive ends and outside linebackers who’ve just realized that it’s Jackson who has the ball. Sometimes he has help from an offensive tackle. Sometimes he doesn’t.
“Pass-protecting is all really new to me,” said Ricard, but still the Ravens have entrusted him with helping to keep Jackson upright on long-developing drop-backs. From Ngakoue to Raiders teammate Maxx Crosby — who lead the NFL in pressures generated, according to the NFL’s Next Gen Stats — to the Kansas City Chiefs’ Chris Jones to the Denver Broncos’ (and now Los Angeles Rams’) Von Miller to the Cincinnati Bengals’ Trey Hendrickson, Ricard has helped block just about every big-name pass rusher on the Ravens’ schedule. No wonder he asks left tackle Ronnie Stanley for tips every so often.
“Our edge rushers here do a really good job of giving me different looks, and the [offensive] tackles help me as well and make sure that I’m not having a one-on-one block as much,” Ricard said. “But I really try to have great pride in one-on-one pass pro. It just shows how valuable I can be to help in that part of the game. ...
“I’m still really learning it. And so to have the confidence early on this season by blocking some really good players, it definitely helps me to know I can definitely do this one-on-one. I don’t need to have double teams as much or do it at all. So it’s still a work in progress for myself. I’m still trying to be as good as I can in that part of the game.”
‘The game’s changing’
It’s as a run blocker, though, where Ricard feels most at home, where he weaponizes the Pancake Pat ethos that’s helped launch an apparel brand. The Ravens have scored 10 rushing touchdowns this season; Ricard has been on the field for all but one, running back Latavius Murray’s 5-yard score against the Kansas City Chiefs in Week 2.
Even as the Ravens’ designed running game has struggled for stretches this season, it typically hasn’t been because of Ricard. The Ravens have used him much like they’ve used Boyle, asking him to clear space in the open field on arcing blocks or to seal off gaps as an in-line tight end.
In the Ravens’ blowout Week 6 win over the Los Angeles Chargers, when they rushed for 187 yards, Ricard was a one-man escort for running back Latavius Murray on the game’s opening score. His well-timed blow to Chargers defensive end Joey Bosa’s outside hip knocked him to his knees at the line of scrimmage. When Ricard climbed to the second level, he displaced Nick Niemann by about 5 yards in only a second of work. Murray only had to follow Ricard’s shadow. He wasn’t touched on his 14-yard score until he jumped across the goal line.
“I’m trying to be that player, to be a perennial Pro Bowler and really be that guy that makes a big difference,” he said. “I’m trying to go out there and really open up lanes anyway I can, just be physical. And I pride myself on being known as Pancake Pat, because that’s the kind of blocks I try to give every Sunday. Just finish guys. And by doing that, putting them on their back — I feel like if I get a stalemate or don’t feel like I move a guy well, then that’s a loss for me.”
Intellectually, Ricard is becoming a heavyweight, too. In the Ravens’ option game, he almost has to read Jackson’s mind as a backfield blocker, judging the positioning and intent of the “read” defender in a split-second, just as a quarterback would. Ricard has to block one way if he thinks a handoff is coming, block another if he thinks it’s a quarterback keeper, and maybe block a third way if the defender’s taken himself out of the play entirely.
“We’re in sync,” Jackson said of his connection with Ricard earlier this season.
“I’m just trying to really expand my knowledge and really be like, instead of like Spanish 101, be on AP [Advanced Placement] Spanish,” Ricard said. “I should be speaking fluent Spanish right now. This isn’t my first time playing offense.”
With Boyle, one of the NFL’s top blocking tight ends, set to return soon after a yearlong absence, Ricard acknowledges that his role will change in some ways. He probably won’t line up as often as an in-line tight end, for one. That’s long been Boyle’s battle station. That change would, in turn, free up Andrews to play more in the slot, where Ricard’s been used at times, mostly in presnap motion.
It’s possible the Ravens will strike gold on offense with Ricard, Boyle and Andrews all on the field at the same time; their three-tight-end sets in 2019 with Hayden Hurst punished teams through the air and on the ground. It’s also possible the Ravens will find more success with a more modern approach; Ricard hardly played in the second half of Jackson’s record-breaking passing performance against the Indianapolis Colts in Week 5.
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All Ricard can do is prepare himself for the variables of an uncertain season. That means knowing the Ravens’ offense. That means knowing the opposing defense. That means knowing that what he was asked to do in Week 1 might be a lot different from what he’s asked to do in Week 18.
“I have to kind of evolve with the game, because the game’s changing, in terms of how you can block and how offenses work,” Ricard said. “I just try to be as physical as I can, because I feel like I’m the heartbeat on this team for physicality. I should be the standard of how I play, and I think that other guys on my team feed off that. So that’s what I try to bring every Sunday.”
Sunday, 1 p.m.
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Line: Ravens by 5 1/2