In 2019, Ravens coach John Harbaugh promised an offensive “revolution” in Baltimore. After two record-breaking seasons — and two heartbreaking playoff losses — offensive coordinator Greg Roman is more focused on its next evolution.
In a conference call Wednesday night with Ravens season-ticket holders, Roman fielded questions about running back J.K. Dobbins’ receiving ability (”He’s really working hard on it”), the value of analytics in football (”Really helps you put a game plan together”) and whether the Ravens might go no-huddle next season (”Nobody in the NFL plays no-huddle.”). But mostly the third-year coordinator talked about his big-picture plans for the next Lamar Jackson-led attack.
With training camp still nearly two months away, Roman compared the offense’s work during organized team activities to the application of a first layer of paint. There are still players to evaluate and plays to install. But the 2021 offense Roman envisioned could look appreciably different in ways big and small from his 2019 and 2020 iterations. Here are three potential new directions for the unit.
1. More under-center plays
The Ravens’ offensive playbook is one of the NFL’s most complex, but every play seems to start with the same basic approach: Lamar Jackson takes a snap out of the pistol or shotgun formation, and the offense triggers from there.
Expect that to change. The Ravens have been practicing traditional drop-backs in practice during OTAs, and Roman said under-center plays will “definitely” feature more prominently in the team’s 2021 offense.
“I don’t know the extent of it, but we are working on it and evaluating it every day,” he said. “It’s something that we certainly will use from time to time, some games more than others.”
Over Jackson’s two years as a full-time starter, the Ravens have gone under center about as rarely as they’ve punted. In 2019, in non-shotgun formations, Jackson had 19 drop-backs and combined with Ravens running backs for 27 carries, according to Sports Info Solutions. Last season, Jackson went under center on just five drop-backs, while the Ravens’ primary ball-carriers had just 24 carries in non-shotgun looks.
Compare that with Tennessee, another run-heavy team: Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill dropped back under center 11 times last season — in just one game. (He hit a season-high 11 twice, actually, according to SIS. One happened to be the Week 11 win over the Ravens.)
Going under center would change the contours of the Ravens offense, closing some paths and opening others. Roman said the Ravens want to continue to make use of Jackson’s high-level ball fakes, as they have in their zone-read rushing attack. Despite a historic ground game, the Ravens’ passing attack off play-action has been unimpressive. With longer-developing run fakes, Jackson might find better throwing lanes and more open targets.
Adding more under-center plays could also help Jackson’s footwork, Roman suggested. They’d certainly reduce the risk of errant snaps, a problem that bedeviled the Ravens in 2020. “That’s why some of those snafus last year snapping the ball really sent us sideways, because it all starts with the quarterback-center exchange, and it goes to the quarterback handling the football, and that’ll never change,” Roman said.
Without pistol or shotgun formations, however, the Ravens’ zone-read threat falls apart. There’s a reason the NFL’s best rushing attack lined up in a shotgun or pistol formation 97 percent of the time, according to Sharp Football Stats.
2. More downfield shots
Asked whether the Ravens might take more downfield shots next season against defenses committing to stacking the box, Roman joked, “You’re talking to the person that was once accused of trying to run it, run it and then throw it over their head.”
The Ravens haven’t been an explosive passing offense in recent years, but they haven’t exactly been hushed, either. According to Sharp Football Stats, the Ravens ranked 15th in the NFL in both 2019 and 2020 in explosive-pass rate, completing a pass of 15 or more yards on 9 percent of their attempts. (Both of the NFL’s top-ranked teams over the past two years, the 2019 San Francisco 49ers and 2020 Houston Texans, managed to do so at a rate of 12 percent.)
Before the Ravens take more deep shots, they’ll have to prove it’s worth the effort. According to SIS, Jackson was just 16-for-44 on throws of at least 20 air yards last season. In 2019, with a stronger offensive line and less talented receiving corps, he was 16-for-46.
Roman was optimistic that the Ravens can do more in 2021. He praised the offensive line and wide receiver Sammy Watkins, said he was “thoroughly impressed” with first-round pick Rashod Bateman, and expressed his excitement for receiver Marquise “Hollywood” Brown’s development over his first normal offseason. Thanks to the Ravens’ running game, Roman said he expects “a lot of favorable looks” for Jackson.
“Our goal is to win, and if teams are giving us opportunities to throw the ball deep, it’s upon us to work hard and figure that out and really be able to take advantage of that,” Roman said, “because those are game-changing plays.”
3. More balance
The Ravens led the NFL in rushing again last year, and Roman said he might as well be institutionalized if he ever thought to neglect a rushing attack so potent.
“Over the last two years, we’ve had the most dominant and productive running game in the history of football, so that’s pretty good,” he said. “And anybody that would deviate from tapping into that should be put into a rubber room. I say that in jest, but we’re built to be a really good running team, and we’re going to continue to do that.”
Which isn’t to say the Ravens will run it as often as they did last year. Roman has already pointed out that the team’s run-first label comes with some caveats. Because of how the coronavirus pandemic affected player availability and practices last season, the Ravens “ended up really hanging our hats on the running game,” he said.
That was partly out of necessity. When the team wanted to try new wrinkles — in, say, the passing game — Roman said it ended up having to test them out on Sundays.
“Last year, we were kind of incorporating the strategy, especially early, in the middle part of the year, where we were really trying to improve on game day and really trying to work on things on game day while we tried to win the game,” he said. “So we really feel the way things are structured this year, we’re going to have a chance to get our preparation done this time of year and during the summer.”
In 2021, that could lead to a more balanced attack. “And who knows?” Roman said. “There might be some games this year where we are really letting it rip.”