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‘He can get medieval or he can finesse’: Why Greg Roman’s Ravens offense is built to take on the Patriots

There is no defense in the NFL that throws its weight around quite like the New England Patriots’. They blitz, they cover, they confuse. Few units in NFL history have collapsed opposing offenses over a season’s first two months with such force: just four touchdowns allowed, and four touchdowns scored.

On Sunday night, the burden of handling the league’s top-ranked defense will fall primarily to the Ravens’ Greg Roman. There might not be an offensive coordinator better equipped to withstand the crushing pressure. Because, well, how many coaches can claim a personal-best squat record of 750 pounds?

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“He’s told me before — he has some really good numbers,” right tackle Orlando Brown Jr. said Thursday. “He’s got that squatty a-- body with the big a-- chest. ... I can only imagine how much he’d be able to do.”

As the Ravens remade their offense this offseason into something coach John Harbaugh believed could be “revolutionary,” they modeled it after its foremost engineers. With Lamar Jackson, their quarterback, there would be speed, versatility and big-play potential. And with Roman, their play-caller, there would be what fullback Patrick Ricard calls a “take over the world” mentality.

The powerlifting past of a former 5-foot-8, 255-pound nose tackle for Division II John Carroll might partly explain the Ravens’ offensive approach and grind-it-out ethos. “Perhaps,” Roman, 47, acknowledged with a grin Thursday. But it’s his innovation, the way this offense is light on its feet, that has vexed opponents.

“I happen to think Greg Roman is one of the more out-of-the-box thinkers that there is in the game,” Cris Collinsworth, an analyst for NBC’s “Sunday Night Football,” said in a conference call Wednesday. “Most of what it is pertains to the running game, though. ... When you watch this team run the football and do things within the running game with multiple formations, motions, the quarterback, you know, reverses, whatever it is, he comes up with a bit of a new twist almost every game that I analyze of his.”

Through eight weeks, the Ravens are second in the NFL in total offense (434.9 yards per game) and first in rushing offense (204.1 yards per game). They’ll enter Sunday’s game with an edge almost unprecedented in the series’ history: a superior attack. Since Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady arrived in New England in 2000, the Patriots have never finished the year with a less efficient offense than the Ravens’, according to Football Outsiders. This season, the Ravens are No. 7; New England is No. 15.

Roman, who arrived in Baltimore in 2017 as a senior offensive assistant and tight ends coach, was promoted to offensive coordinator in January after overseeing the Ravens’ run game last season. In his rebuild of the team’s playbook this offseason, he hoped to usher in an offense that relied less on Jackson’s running ability and optimized his improvements as a passer.

So far, so good. A year after passing less than 38% of the time (excluding kneel-downs) with Jackson as their starter, the Ravens are passing on nearly 48% of their offensive plays, the third-lowest rate in the pass-happy NFL but still an effective counterbalance to their dominant ground game (5.5 yards per game, second overall).

In both personnel and schemes, it is a one-of-a-kind offense. According to the NFL’s Next Gen Stats, the Ravens have used the pistol formation — the shotgun set in which a back lines up behind Jackson — on more plays (219) than the rest of the NFL combined (200). The alignment allows the Ravens to marry college-style spread-option concepts like the run-pass option with pro-style schemes.

Eric Wood, a former center on the Bills offense who Roman oversaw during his season-plus in Buffalo, recalled that when Roman took over as the San Francisco 49ers’ offensive coordinator in 2011, his run schemes were “power, power, power.” Then Alex Smith got hurt, Colin Kaepernick took over, and Roman began to incorporate some of the pistol looks that Kaepernick had used at Nevada.

In Buffalo, Roman built on what he’d learned with his first dual-threat quarterback. The Bills led the NFL in rushing in 2015 with a mix of power elements, read-option looks for quarterback Tyrod Taylor and “G” schemes, where even play-side guards were asked to pull and clear a path for running back LeSean McCoy. “Now everybody’s running them in the NFL,” Wood said.

“You're looking at a guy who, at some point down the road, he may be regarded as one of the top mobile-quarterback coaches of all time,” said Wood, who retired in 2018 and now works as an ACC Network analyst. “He put Colin Kaepernick in the Pro Bowl. And Colin Kaepernick can't get a job now. He put Tyrod Taylor in the Pro Bowl. And Tyrod's a backup now in L.A. for the Chargers. And now what he's doing with Lamar, after everyone said Lamar would be better off being a running back or a wide receiver — now what he's doing with Lamar's remarkable.”

Two plays from Week 7 underscore the breadth of Roman’s playbook. Harbaugh said after the upset win over the Seattle Seahawks that Roman had been “fighting” for the fourth-and-1 play the Ravens executed in the fourth quarter to take the lead. It was heavy-metal football: Jackson took a shotgun snap, followed his blockers — six linemen, three tight ends and one fullback — and went up the gut and into the end zone.

“He wants to be dominant,” Brown said of Roman.

But he also needs to be unpredictable. The Ravens’ biggest gain all day came on a first-quarter play-action pass from Jackson to rookie wide receiver Miles Boykin. The play took a calculated risk: It was designed to give the Seahawks’ edge rusher — in this case, freak-of-nature defensive end Jadeveon Clowney — a clear path to the backfield, trusting that Jackson would roll out in time.

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The misdirection worked. Tight end Nick Boyle, who’d lined up in the shotgun next to Jackson, let Clowney take off after the quarterback, then walled him off with a block once Clowney tried to change direction. No defender was within 5 yards of Jackson when he fired downfield for a 50-yard strike.

“The stuff that we do is so complex, there’s so many moving parts, I don’t think there’s anything like it in the NFL,” tight end Hayden Hurst said. “Which, I think, in turn, our passing game feeds off that, because you’ve got different guys in different looks. They’re expecting run, and then all of a sudden, we pop a pass on them.”

Under Belichick, the Patriots have shut off weapons more potent than the Ravens’. Roman said the offense would enter Sunday’s game “with a lot of options” for how to proceed, then adjust accordingly. Jackson joked that it “would make the job a lot easier” if he knew he was in store for a 300-yard passing game or a 100-yard rushing day, but "we’re going to take advantage of what they give us.”

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“There’s so many elements to the way he goes about his offense," Ricard said of Roman. "He can get medieval or he can finesse with RPO and all the different [schemes]. That’s why it’s hard to scheme against us. Because there’s so much to it.”

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