Over four months, 16 games and hundreds of drop-backs, Lamar Jackson had only rarely thrown to his running backs. So when the Buffalo Bills faced the Ravens and their star quarterback in the AFC divisional round last season, they all but dared him to.
Bills defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier’s game plan for the NFL’s reigning Most Valuable Player was calculated. When the Ravens lined up in heavier personnel groupings, Buffalo gambled that the run was coming. And when Jackson dropped back to pass, Buffalo gambled that it could leave parts of the field vulnerable in zone coverage if it meant crowding the middle, Jackson’s sweet spot.
They were winning bets. When Jackson was knocked out of the game at the end of the third quarter, the Ravens had just 108 rushing yards on 4.2 yards per carry, and Jackson was just 14-for-24 for 162 yards and an interception. The offense’s weaknesses — a leaky offensive line, unreliable shotgun snaps, a limited receiving corps — had been exposed and exploited in a 17-3 loss. But so had an overlooked tendency.
As the Ravens’ work on their much-scrutinized passing game continues at organized team activities this week, there are higher hopes for even the running backs. Offensive coordinator Greg Roman told season-ticket holders in a conference call Wednesday that the Ravens would “love to really have a threat out of the backfield,” because they didn’t last season.
Entering that mid-January game in Buffalo, rookie J.K. Dobbins had 19 catches for 114 yards, Gus Edwards had nine catches for 129 yards, and Justice Hill and Mark Ingram II had a combined seven catches for 70 yards. Ravens running backs finished the regular season averaging 22.8 receiving yards per game, third lowest in the NFL; Cleveland Browns backup Kareem Hunt, by contrast, averaged 19 per game.
It wasn’t like Ravens running backs were chained to pass protection, either. They went out for fewer routes than other backs around the league because they ran the ball more than any team. But their absence in the team’s passing game was conspicuous.
According to Sports Info Solutions, the NFL’s 20 most targeted running backs in 2020 were all targeted on their routes between 19.2% and 37.3% of the time, with a 26.9% rate for the sample. Ravens running backs last season were targeted on just 15.1% of their routes, the lowest rate in the NFL. Several teams finished with close to double the Ravens’ rate.
Jackson’s tendency to look past Dobbins and Edwards wasn’t necessarily a bad one. Analytically, throws to running backs are the least efficient throws a quarterback can make. Situationally, the backs had value, too; Roman sometimes had them line up out wide, forcing defenses to tip their hand presnap: man-to-man or zone coverage? Other times, Jackson had backs open on check-downs, only to decide he’d rather tuck the ball and turn them into a lead blocker on a scramble.
But when the Ravens traveled to Buffalo, Jackson’s blind spot turned into a liability. On nearly two-thirds of his drop-backs, Jackson faced a Cover 4 defense, a common coverage in which two cornerbacks typically patrol the outside deep zones and two safeties handle the inside deep zones. The defense allowed the Bills to bring up their safeties in run support and deter long passes.
Where it left them shorthanded was underneath. Depending on the routes of the Ravens’ outside receivers, Buffalo often had only three defenders in zone coverage to handle the Ravens’ short- and intermediate-range options. But rather than widen out to the sideline when the Ravens sent receivers to the flats, Bills linebackers and inside cornerbacks concerned themselves mostly with routes run between the numbers. That’s where Jackson is at his best.
Dobbins finished the loss with three catches on five targets for 51 yards, second most on the team, but the Ravens missed opportunities for more. Edwards and Dobbins were open in the flat on what became two minimal Jackson scrambles. On two sacks, Dobbins was available for check-downs. On a second-and-14 play late in the second quarter, Jackson overlooked Dobbins, wide open along the right sideline, to target tight end Mark Andrews, wide open but 10 yards farther downfield, despite pressure in his face. Jackson’s throw landed short of Andrews, and the Ravens punted two plays later.
Even on Dobbins’ 31-yard catch-and-run, the Ravens’ longest play from scrimmage all game, the rookie was open for several seconds in the left flat before leaking downfield, where Jackson found him on a broken play.
“The uniqueness of our offense at times means that we’ll see some different things from teams in order to stop some of the things we do,” Ravens quarterbacks coach James Urban said Wednesday. “One of the great things about the way we prepare is, we’re ready for the unexpected. We expect the unexpected, and we’re comfortable with that. So some of the things that we’ve seen, obviously, we’re working on. Obviously, they’re working on it, too. So it’ll just keep moving the shells, but that’s part of the way.”
The onus is not just on Jackson, whom Buffalo sacked three times and pressured 10 times in three quarters. Among the offseason projects for first-year running backs coach Craig Ver Steeg and first-year pass game specialist Keith Williams is the development of the Ravens’ young running backs, a group of talented ball-carriers but not-quite-feared receivers.
Hill’s role was limited last year because of injuries and a crowded depth chart, but he averaged over 15 receptions per season at Oklahoma State and caught all five targets last year. Through two seasons, he has 13 catches for 90 yards.
Edwards, whose burly 6-foot-1 frame is far from the prototype for dual-threat backs, has improved every year as a receiver. He hasn’t dropped a pass yet in his NFL career, according to Pro-Football-Reference, and last season he averaged an impressive 14.3 yards per catch on a career-high 13 targets. Edwards also was targeted on over 20% of his routes, the highest rate for a Ravens running back.
Dobbins, with his change-of-direction ability and breakaway speed, has the highest ceiling of the trio. The Ravens targeted him in a variety of ways last season: on angle routes (a backfield pattern that starts outside before breaking over the middle near the line of scrimmage) and swing routes (a quick hitter thrown behind the line of scrimmage, usually when Jackson anticipated a blitz), on screen passes and check-downs.
But despite a modest workload as a receiver — 24 regular-season targets and six in the postseason — Dobbins struggled at times to execute the most important skill. He dropped six passes, including two in the loss to the Bills, for a season-long drop rate of 20%. The highest rate among qualifying receivers last season, according to PFR, was Tampa Bay Buccaneers running back Leonard Fournette’s 14.9%.
The Ravens don’t need Jackson to feature running backs in their passing game for it to take off, just as Dobbins doesn’t need to become Alvin Kamara to threaten defenses. But the more they can do — Jackson as a passer, Dobbins as a receiver — the harder they’ll be to stop in 2021.
“I really think last year was a great experience for [Dobbins],” Roman said Wednesday. “And I think he’s got the skill set and the talent to really include him as a viable weapon in the passing game. We definitely did some things with him last year, but I’ll just tell you, last year was extremely hard for rookies to develop because [there was] no offseason, abbreviated training camp, and then here you go, you’re getting thrown into the fire.
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“So we’re really blessed to return to normality and have this opportunity this offseason to practice. So he’s really working hard on it, and that’s a big focus of what we’re doing right now.”