John Harbaugh said it was their plan all along.
The Ravens had thrown 30 passes, one for each minute of the first half, as they headed for the visiting locker room, down 10-3 to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. They knew the next 30 minutes of game time would say a lot about where their season was headed, and as Harbaugh explained it, they believed the Tampa Bay defense was set up to take a thumping.
What unfolded from there was something like an ideal version of Ravens offense, with Greg Roman conducting from the booth above and Lamar Jackson executing on the field. They ran every which way — zone concepts, run-pass option, draws, jet sweeps — stretching the Buccaneers from sideline to sideline and then punching them in the gut. Out ahead of Jackson and his backfield mates, clearing space for their ground-bound mayhem, were 6-foot-6, 315-pound left tackle Ronnie Stanley and 6-6, 320-pound right tackle Morgan Moses, not to mention relatively diminutive center Tyler Linderbaum, who seemed to move as quickly as the linebackers he mauled in open space.
They ended up with 204 rushing yards, and more importantly, three long touchdown drives, in that crucial second half. Was this a preview of the offense we’re going to see from now on as the Ravens try to build on their 5-3 start and extend their lead in the AFC North? Or just another data point as they cast about for the best version of their 2022 team?
“Anytime you can be successful at multiple schemes, it makes it really hard on a defense,” Linderbaum said. “If you’re able to mix it up with inside zone, outside zone, a bunch of the QB-driven stuff with Lamar, then we add in our power schemes, it makes it difficult to prepare for. The ball’s rolling in the right direction; we just need to keep moving forward with it.”
As ever in the Roman era, the Ravens’ offense presents a Rorschach test for the close observer.
Critics were ready to send the offensive coordinator packing at halftime of the Buccaneers game, when the Ravens seemed on track to score 20 points or fewer for the fourth time in five games. Jackson’s passing numbers had plummeted in that stretch, and injuries to his top targets, Mark Andrews and Rashod Bateman, made the situation more dire.
Even cursory statistical analysis, however, paints a starkly different picture of where the Ravens stand offensively. They rank fifth in scoring and 10th in total yardage — pretty good. Then we look at offensive DVOA, the Football Outsiders statistic that accounts for quality of opposition and the context of every play, and they’re all the way up at No. 2, ahead of the Buffalo Bills and Philadelphia Eagles among other top contenders.
The Ravens rank so high in part because of their balance: third in rush DVOA, fourth in pass DVOA. But is this an accurate picture of where they’re headed?
Jackson’s extraordinary early performance against the blitz and in the red zone staked them to a fast start through the air. Now, he’s working without his top deep threat in Bateman, who opted for season-ending surgery after he aggravated a foot injury against the Buccaneers, and with a banged-up Andrews, who left the Tampa Bay game early because of a shoulder injury. No. 3 wide receiver Demarcus Robinson and rookie tight end Isaiah Likely stepped up against the Buccaneers, but it’s fair to ask how much production Jackson can squeeze out given his depleted set of targets. The Ravens did not add another pass catcher before the trade deadline, and we’re still waiting to see when and how much veteran speed burner DeSean Jackson might contribute.
So the onus is back on Roman’s ever-evolving ground attack. The Ravens use “heavy” sets, with fewer than three wide receivers, far more than any other team in the league. Can they get where they want to go treating these fleet weapons, the most glamorous players in the modern NFL behind quarterbacks, as accessories?
Longtime NFL cornerback and “Thursday Night Football” analyst Richard Sherman believes: “Yes, I think they can make it to the championship, just because I think Greg Roman will start to evolve as he showed in the last game against Tampa Bay. … Everybody’s complaining about running, running, running and predictable, predictable predictable, so he throws the ball 30 times in the first half just to prove a point and then goes back to the bread and butter in the second half and wins the game. I literally played in a division with him, played on the Stanford football team that went to an Orange Bowl with him, and he’s a great play caller and he can work with what he’s got.”
The Ravens’ running statistics this season tell the story of Roman’s continuing adaptability. According to TruMedia, they’re averaging 0.14 expected points added per rush in 2022 compared to 0.05 in their record-setting 2019 season. They’re converting on 58.3% of third-down runs compared to 53.3% in 2019. They’re doing it while relying far less on Jackson’s scrambles and with a supporting cast that has featured five different running backs (not to mention wide receiver Devin Duvernay) thanks to injuries.
“All of our coaches do a good job of developing that run game, but it’s always a moving target, because it has to be,” Harbaugh said. “I just appreciate the creativity of our coaches. We’re really challenging people the full width of the field with the run game. Then, you add in the RPOs and the play-action passes, that brings depth into play. So, we have some really good stuff going with the run game, scheme-wise.”
The mobility of the Ravens’ offensive line facilitates that creativity. “Just how fast our linemen [are], how smooth they are on their feet,” Jackson said. “A lot of big guys can’t move like that.”
“It’s huge,” Roman said. “Some teams, you’re going to want to run right down the middle at, but there are some teams, if you try to do that, you’re really going to be going nowhere. So in order to win week in and week out, run the ball effectively week in and week out, that flexibility, where you can move people and attack different parts of the field, different gaps, different players, is paramount. It’s not a cookie-cutter running game. It’s a running game that changes week to week according to the opponent. In order to do that — it sounds great, a pie-in-the-sky theory right there — you have to have the players to do it.”
Because their towering tackles are light-footed enough to pull effectively, they can send their backs outside to search for lanes behind a wall of moving beef. They were known as a gap-blocking team coming into this season but have explored more zone concepts — asking their linemen to move in tandem to block an area rather than a man — in recent weeks. Guards Kevin Zeitler and Ben Powers have also played well, but Linderbaum seems to be the real feast for connoisseurs of line play, who love watching him burst past his initial block to eliminate linebackers.
“Linderbaum probably has been the best rookie OL this season, which isn’t too surprising considering he was probably the best college lineman last season as well,” gushed Brandon Thorn, who analyzes offensive line play for his Trench Warfare newsletter, as he watched the rookie manhandle Buccaneers linebacker Devin White.
Skeptics wondered if Linderbaum’s 6-2, 305-pound frame would leave him at a disadvantage against massive interior linemen such as Tampa Bay’s Vita Vea, while his biggest fans always believed his technique and athleticism would transcend such concerns.
“Coming from Iowa, that was kind of all we did,” Linderbaum said. “Kind of that wide-zone, outside-zone scheme, so anytime we call that here, I’m chomping at the bit.”
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“Absolutely,” Harbaugh said when asked if Linderbaum is opening new dimensions for the team’s running game. “He’s also reaching guys; he’s reaching shades, he’s reaching three-technique [linemen aligned over a center’s shoulder] sometimes, which is pretty incredible. So, it’s the stuff that you saw in college, and you always ask yourself, ‘Is this going to transfer to the NFL?’ That’s really the game of the draft, so to speak, and the evaluation part of it. I would say, so far, so good.”
Ravens at Saints
Monday, 8:15 p.m.
TV: Ch. 13, ESPN
Radio: 97.9 FM, 101.5 FM, 1090 AM
Line: Ravens by 2 1/2