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The Ravens’ Offensive Metamorphosis Set Lamar Jackson Up for Success

By aggressively utilizing runs and play-action passes, Baltimore’s rookie QB flourished last week. Now he looks ready for an encore performance.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The Lamar Jackson–led Ravens offense we saw last week was unlike anything we had seen in the NFL this year. This week, we get the much-anticipated sequel.

With Joe Flacco still sidelined with a hip injury, Jackson looks set to make his second start this Sunday when the Ravens host the Raiders. Last week in a 24-21 win over Cincinnati, the versatile, dual-threat playmaker completely changed the dynamic of the Ravens offense. Baltimore diverged tremendously from what it was doing with Flacco under center, both in scheme and identity, and in the use of personnel. This week, we’re bound to get a few more surprises with Jackson at the helm as the Ravens’ new-look offense continues to evolve.

Against Cincinnati, Baltimore shifted from a high-volume passing attack to a heavily run-centric one without skipping a beat. Through 10 weeks, no team attempted more passes than the Ravens (43.4 per game), who carried the third-lowest situation-neutral run rate (35 percent) in the league (i.e., the rate they run the ball in one-score games during the first three quarters). On Sunday, the Ravens ran on 74 percent of their situation-neutral snaps and tallied 54 rush attempts, including 11 straight on their opening drive. In all, they racked up 265 yards and scored a pair of touchdowns on the ground. Jackson led the charge, carrying the ball a team-high 27 times—most for any quarterback since 1950—for 117 yards, and was flanked by rookie running back Gus Edwards, who grabbed 115 yards and a score on 17 totes.

The run game schematics the Ravens baked up for Jackson’s first start reflected the collective experiences of the team’s offensive brain trust. Offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg and quarterbacks coach James Urban both coached Michael Vick in Philadelphia in 2009 and 2010, and tight ends coach Greg Roman was integral in designing the 49ers’ ground attack that featured Alex Smith and Colin Kaepernick as runners in the early 2010s. On Sunday, Baltimore mixed pistol and shotgun looks and used a handful of quarterback-run concepts to keep the Bengals off balance from start to finish, leaning heavily on Jackson’s talents in the zone read as the foundation.

Jackson, who’s just flat-out faster than almost any front-seven defender, used his speed to elude Cincy’s first line of defense (typically a linebacker scraping over to the back side of the play) on read-option plays, getting outside quickly before finding a crease downfield. He even destroyed the pursuit angles of a handful of defensive backs to get to the sideline on a few occasions.

Baltimore utilized a few designed QB-keeper plays as well, tossing out a quarterback draw play in the first quarter and a quarterback sweep play later in the game.

Jackson’s run chart from NFL Next Gen Stats illustrates how he used his legs to attack the edges of Cincinnati’s defense.

To keep the Bengals off-balance, the Ravens mixed in a few misdirection plays, like an unsuccessful delayed reverse and a more successful jet sweep.

And, of course, they handed off to their running backs early and often, attacking the middle of the field to set up all those outside-focused run plays. The surprise bell cow of the day was the rookie Edwards, who showcased his physicality and vision running into the briar patch, breaking seven tackles along the way.

Edwards may have gotten the nod over the usual starter Alex Collins because his downhill running style is a better fit for the zone-read game, or perhaps the team simply felt more comfortable in managing the mesh-point exchange with him on those plays. Whatever the case, the Ravens run game, which came into the week ranked 31st in yards per carry (at 3.61), managed to rattle off 4.91 yards per tote on their 54 rush attempts.

Though the passing game was secondary in Jackson’s premiere, the team did a nice job of marrying what it did on the ground to its strategy in the air. Baltimore ran play-action on 45.8 percent of Jackson’s 24 dropbacks, per Pro Football Focus, doubling its play-action rate with Flacco over the first 10 weeks (22.3 percent). With the ground game as the foundation, Mornhinweg used bootlegs, moving pockets, and simple play-fakes to scheme receivers open for his young quarterback.

He even mixed in an RPO or two.

In the dropback passing game, Baltimore relied on a lot of quick-developing hitch and slant routes over the middle. The game plan was clearly designed to help ease Jackson in as a passer, giving him plenty of first-read throws over the middle and quick screens to the outside. His passing chart from Next Gen Stats shows how the air attack helped balance what he was doing with his legs to the outside.

Baltimore’s offense also changed its formations and personnel groupings. Through 10 weeks, the team had lined up with shotgun or pistol looks on 67 percent of its snaps. On Sunday, Jackson was in the pistol or shotgun on 93 percent of snaps. The Ravens saw an uptick in both “22 personnel” (two running backs, two tight ends) and “12 personnel” (one running back, two tight ends) looks, utilizing those “heavier” formations at a much higher rate than we’d seen for most of the year. With such a focus on the running attack, Baltimore’s use of three-receiver sets dropped 9 percent off their season-long average.

It was, essentially, a complete overhaul of the offense, with Baltimore looking nothing like it has with Flacco under center. In a year when rookie QBs have struggled, the Ravens aggressively changed their approach to set Jackson up for success against Cincinnati. The question is whether that success will continue now that the Raiders have a full game’s worth of tape to prepare for these wrinkles.

It’d be a mistake to make any hard conclusions based on one game, particularly one involving a rookie quarterback’s first pro start. The team (and Jackson) has promised that a more balanced approach—with more passing—is coming, but I’d expect that to be a slow transition, giving Jackson more time to get comfortable in the system and reading NFL defenses.

The bottom line is we still don’t know exactly what the team envisions for the Jackson-led offense, or even whether he’ll keep his job once Flacco gets back to practice. What we do know is this: The dynamic rookie quarterback adds a new dimension to the Ravens offense, and fundamentally changes how teams must defend it. And I don’t envy the defensive coordinators faced with game-planning against a Jackson-led offense down the stretch.