This was not the plan.
Coach John Harbaugh said as much after the Ravens’ 26-16 victory last Sunday, which pushed them to 7-5 and gave them control of the last playoff spot in the AFC. “This is an offense that I don’t know if any of us know exactly where it’s going,” he acknowledged.
What we do know is that the Ravens have been a different team over the past three weeks, with rookie Lamar Jackson at quarterback in place of the injured Joe Flacco.
In their first nine games, with Flacco as the starter, they averaged 26 rushing attempts and 43 passing attempts per game. In three games with Jackson, they’ve averaged 48 runs and 23 passes. The Flacco-led offense accumulated 25 percent of its total yards on the ground. With Jackson, runs account for 60 percent of the Ravens’ total yardage. With Flacco, the Ravens controlled the ball an average of 31 minutes a game. With Jackson, they’ve dominated time of possession at an average of 37 minutes per game.
This Sunday, their evolving formula will face its greatest test against the Kansas City Chiefs and their mile-a-minute offense led by howitzer-armed quarterback Patrick Mahomes. Have the Ravens, with their ball-control offense and league-best defense, stumbled upon the right approach to smother one of the NFL’s cutting-edge attacks?
They’d like to think so.
Harbaugh said the Ravens present a unique problem by swimming against the league’s pass-happy tide.
“It’s tough when you see something for the first time,” he said. “You can go back to the old Air Force offense, or what Navy does down there with Ken [Niumatalolo]. When a team sees that for the first time and doesn’t have a chance to work on it all throughout the year, it’s going to be challenging for them, of course, and all of the coaches in the last three weeks have said that.”
The team’s defensive leaders said they’ve been set up to succeed by spending less time on the field.
“If anyone doesn’t think that, then they don’t really know football. When you’re on the field for 20 percent less than what you normally have been, you’re obviously going to play better defense and play better as a team,” safety Eric Weddle said. “And especially against a great offense, if you hold on to the ball, they have less opportunities, and that’s always great for defense.”
Ravens-Chiefs offers a collision of contrasting styles that evokes great rivalries from the NFL’s past — most notably the smash-mouth New York Giants under Bill Parcells against the fluid offensive genius of the San Francisco 49ers under Bill Walsh.
CBS analyst and former Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo practically salivated over the Baltimore-Kansas City matchup as he looked ahead to it while calling the Ravens’ victory in Atlanta.
He, like many football lovers, wants to know if it’s still possible to win with grinding offense and attacking defense in an NFL dominated by space-age passing schemes.
No other team has bashed and bruised its way to victory over the Chiefs. Their only two conquerors, the New England Patriots and Los Angeles Rams, outlasted them in shootouts. The Denver Broncos have come closest using the approach the Ravens will likely employ — falling to the Chiefs twice by a combined 11 points while outrushing them in each game.
There is a skeptic’s take on the Ravens’ recent success, and it’s vocalized by Aaron Schatz, founder of the enduring analytics website Football Outsiders.
Schatz ranks teams by DVOA (defense-adjusted value over average), a statistic that measures the success of every play against league norms, adjusted for the quality of competition. According to DVOA, the Ravens have actually been worse on offense during their three-game winning streak than they were over their first nine games. That’s because they fell from the 12th-most efficient passing offense in the league with Flacco to the 28th-most efficient in three games with Jackson. As Schatz sees it, they’ve righted their fortunes because of better defense, better special teams and a favorable schedule.
“Lamar is not the reason things have gotten better over the last three weeks,” he said. “If the goal is to win a wild card this year, or the division even, if Flacco is healthy, they’re better off going back to Flacco. If the goal is building for the future, then they’re better off sticking with Jackson, because Jackson is the future.”
Schatz is not anti-Jackson. In fact, he said the former Heisman Trophy winner has played pretty well by rookie quarterback standards — better than fellow 2018 first-round draft picks such as Josh Allen of the Buffalo Bills and Josh Rosen of the Arizona Cardinals. It’s just that an average passing attack is more efficient than an elite running game.
Asked to name the best running quarterback he’s studied, Schatz pointed to Russell Wilson of the Seattle Seahawks, who keeps defenses off-balance with his scrambling but has always been a highly efficient thrower.
What about the Ravens’ advantages in time of possession? Well, no matter what conventional wisdom says, Schatz and his analysts have never found a shred of evidence that a team’s defense benefits from its offense controlling the ball.
“We’ve never found any evidence that it matters, and we’ve never found any evidence that a defense getting more rest because of the running game plays better,” he said. “I’m not going to say we’ve proven it doesn’t. But we’ve never found any evidence to back that conventional wisdom.”
In one sense, the Ravens agree with Schatz’s thesis. They don’t regard the switch from Flacco to Jackson as a catalyst for some magical transformation.
“I think, the way our defense and special teams have played, if Joe was in the game, we would have still won those games,” Weddle said. “So, I don’t want to get in so much that Lamar has come in and changed the whole dynamic of our team. We’re obviously a more run-dominant team, but we’re playing better as a team, and that’s why we’ve been successful. I think it energizes us, because we’re excited to see him play. He’s such a great kid and [you can see] how much better he's gotten over the last three months, but this team is built to play this way, so we’re just finally doing that.”
With Flacco moving and throwing more freely as he recovers from the hip injury he suffered in Week 9, there’s no guarantee Jackson will remain the starter.
Chiefs coach Andy Reid, one of the finest offensive minds in recent NFL history, said the Ravens are difficult to prepare for in part because they’re capable of running two distinct attacks.
“They’re blessed to have two really good quarterbacks — well, really three — but the two that are playing and have played together, and that’s a unique combination,” Reid said. “Sure, Lamar, he gives you … He can run like a running back, he’s as fast as a wide receiver and he can throw like a son of a gun, like a quarterback, so that’s a pretty good combination to have. He’s a talented kid, and so is the other guy. Flacco is a talented one. That’s a good situation right there that Marty [Mornhinweg] has, and John.”
Reid also praised the nexus between the Ravens’ ball control, defense and special teams. So for him as well, the story goes beyond Jackson.
“It’s all-around; it’s a good combination, a healthy combination that they have there between all three phases,” he said. “So that’s a big challenge for us.”
It’s also worth noting that even if Jackson remains the starting quarterback, the Ravens have been adamant they need to connect on more downfield passes to keep winning. They produced just one play of more than 20 yards against the Falcons.
“We’re going to connect on those,” Harbaugh said. “That has to happen and will happen. That’s something that’s very important.”
Even the Ravens don’t believe they’ve hit on the perfect formula, despite the successes of the past three weeks.