For most of the past two decades, the Ravens have been defined by their tough-as-nails defensive units. This season, the script has been flipped: Under electric second-year quarterback Lamar Jackson, the Ravens have the most exciting―and damn-near-unstoppable―offense in football.
That group has quickly become weekly appointment viewing and the NFL’s leader in points per game (33.3), points per drive (3.1), yards per drive (43.4), drive success rate (79.9 percent), and, by my official count, fun shit per play. With the combination of a dual-threat quarterback, a dynamic group of skill position playmakers, a strong offensive line, an analytically forward-thinking head coach in John Harbaugh, and a creative offensive play-caller in Greg Roman, Baltimore has built a versatile offensive juggernaut. It’s half muscle car and half Ferrari; transitioning seamlessly between its powerful option-based run game and its explosive, high-flying aerial attack, the Jackson-led offense has carried the Ravens to 7-2 record―and made Baltimore a legitimate Super Bowl contender.
The ground game is the foundation of the Ravens’ scheme. Baltimore leads the NFL in rushing yards per game (197.2), yards per attempt (5.5), rushing first downs (98), and rushing touchdowns (15), and has shown few signs of slowing down thanks to Roman’s constantly evolving and endlessly versatile option-based scheme. That system leans on two defining variables: Jackson’s legs, and the pistol formation.
Let’s start with the latter: The pistol is a hybrid between under-center and shotgun looks, with Jackson aligned a few yards behind the center and his running back directly behind him. This formation gives Baltimore the best of both schematic worlds: The team can run downhill-style run plays and attack both sides of the field without its alignment tipping its directional hand—as you’d see with old-school I-formation offenses—while at the same time giving the team the ability to run a full complement of shotgun-based option runs and spread-style passing plays. As was illustrated on the Ravens’ opening touchdown drive in their big Week 9 win over the Patriots, Baltimore’s repertoire of pistol-formation option plays—and the schematic tweaks and layers that Roman continually adds to those looks—keeps defenses guessing both before and after the snap and gives the Ravens a numerical advantage up front. The “unblocked” players on these schemes are, in effect, blocked by Jackson.
With Jackson’s unique talent and speed as a runner, there’s no real limit to the variety and style of plays that Roman can dial up. The Ravens put defenders in conflict with every option play they run―depending on what that defender does, Jackson can keep the ball or get it to his running back―and to make things even tougher, Baltimore can change up the direction of the read (again, from the pistol formation, the Ravens aren’t tipping their hand prior to the snap), vary the read defender (sometimes reading the end, sometimes reading a defensive tackle, etc.), or mix in screens or jet motion into what look like option plays at the snap. Watching the speed and fluidity with which Jackson makes decisions at the mesh point gives you an idea of how difficult it is for defenders to quickly decipher what the Ravens have planned.
Making things even more difficult, Roman makes sure to add a few twists to every play and varies the personnel and exact formations from which they’re run. On these two similar sprint-option looks against the Patriots and Bengals, Baltimore used different personnel (21 personnel on the first, 22 personnel on the second) and formations (a balanced set with the fullback next to Jackson on the first, an uneven set with the tight end next to Jackson on the second). This makes it tough for the defense to identify a tell pre-snap.
On these option-pitch plays, Jackson is forcing the unblocked defender on the play side to commit to stopping either him or running back Mark Ingram. Whatever that defender chooses, he will be wrong: If he closes on Jackson, Jackson will pitch it outside to his running back, and if the defender goes outside, Jackson will simply keep it and sprint upfield.
Adding another layer to the schematic onion, Roman has used jet motion with Marquise Brown on a couple of these sprint-option-style looks. Against the Patriots, Jackson pitched it to Brown before running the feint with Ingram to the right. With a handful of New England defenders thinking the play was going to their left, Brown picked up 26 yards. Against the Bengals, Roman used the same jet motion prior to the snap―and you can see the Cincinnati defense reacting to that―but instead of flipping it to Brown, Jackson kept it himself, executed the sprint option with Ingram, and picked up 9.
A little later in the game, Roman busted out a play the team calls “Heisman,” aligning Jackson, Ingram, and backup quarterback Robert Griffin III (all three former Heisman winners) in the backfield to run the triple option. On the play, Ingram is the dive option and Griffin is the pitch; Jackson keeps the ball when the unblocked play-side defender crashes down on Ingram, then pitches it when a second defender commits inside. Together, Jackson and Griffin picked up 12 yards.
Of course, these plays and schemes are anything but new. They’re commonplace in college football and have been heavily utilized in stretches in the NFL: Roman leaned on pistol option looks with Colin Kaepernick in San Francisco, after all, while Griffin, Alex Smith, and others have been deployed in similar-style schemes. The Ravens’ dynamic option-based offense is unique to the NFL, though, in one key way: It’s the only one that’s had Lamar Jackson under center.
The dual-threat playmaker is faster and more agile than just about everyone else on the field, and whether he’s picking up chunk yards on designed QB-run plays like the one above, or making defenses pay with his innate scrambling skills like this one ...
… he has proved he’s capable of creating big plays with his feet while avoiding the big hits that coaches worry about. There just isn’t another player in the league with Jackson’s skill set; he not only ranks 11th among all players in rushing yards (702) this year, but has shown the ability to pick apart defenses with his arm. That makes him, to put it simply, a huge pain in the ass to defend. Ask Earl Thomas, who has to practice against Jackson every week.
Earl Thomas: "I'd rather play against a quarterback that's going to stand there ... I'm not enjoying these young quarterbacks that's coming into the league ... but it's just the way the league is going right now." pic.twitter.com/SQqpqSr3wt— Rivers McCown (@riversmccown) November 14, 2019
The accuracy and poise Jackson has shown as a passer has not only proved those who thought he should move to receiver wrong, but is what makes Baltimore so difficult to game plan against. If the sophomore QB were a limited passer, teams could simply dedicate another defender or two to the box and sell out to stop the run. But the former Louisville star has forced opponents to abandon that thought, launching well-placed missiles downfield while picking apart coverages in the short and intermediate ranges.
The Ravens have formed the perfect marriage between the run game and the passing attack.
Utilizing tight ends Mark Andrews, Hayden Hurst, and Nick Boyle (plus fullback Patrick Ricard), Baltimore leans on “heavy” personnel sets to blow defenders off the ball in the run game and open up lanes for the team’s runners. But along with the explosive Brown on the outside, Baltimore’s run-blocking tight ends are also dynamic in the passing game. The Ravens are lapping the field this season in pass-catching production from the tight end position, with that group combining to catch league highs in receptions (83) and yards (949) through 10 weeks.
Play-action is at the center of the team’s downfield passing game. Jackson ranks fifth among regular starters this year in play-action rate (32.8 percent), per Pro Football Focus, notching a 121.5 passer rating on those plays (fourth best), with eight touchdowns and zero picks. In Baltimore’s opening possession against the Bengals, Jackson put on a play-action clinic, moving the ball downfield with ease by attacking out-of-position defenders.
Jackson continues to refine his touch throwing to all three levels. He’s demonstrated excellent accuracy in the short area, giving his pass catchers the chance to reel in the ball and move upfield in one smooth motion.
That pinpoint ball placement shows up when he’s threading the needle into tight coverage downfield, too. On this play against the Patriots, he put the ball up high where only his receiver could get it.
Jackson has demonstrated good feel for manipulating the pocket, moving up to avoid pressure while keeping his eyes downfield, and can influence middle-field safeties with his eyes, holding that defender long enough for his intended receiver to get downfield. And against the Bengals, Jackson hung tough in the face of pressure and made this touchdown throw to Brown despite knowing he would be knocked on his back.
Jackson’s numbers are strong across the board: He’s completed 66 percent of his passes for 2,036 yards, 15 touchdowns, and five picks for a passer rating of 101.7. He’s been aggressive throwing it deep (targeting receivers 20-plus yards downfield on 14.1 percent of his throws, which is tied with Josh Allen for 12th) posting a passer rating of 100.5 on those throws, and he’s been nails in the face of pressure, ranking fourth in passer rating under pressure (99.1) among quarterbacks with 150-plus dropbacks―behind only Derek Carr, Russell Wilson, and Patrick Mahomes.
The Ravens built their entire offensive identity around Jackson’s unique skill set, embracing his abilities as a runner while simultaneously leaning on his whip-like arm. With the combination of a diverse run game, play-action passing, some misdirection, and Jackson’s seemingly jet-pack-assisted speed, Baltimore has confounded even its most disciplined, well-coached opponents. That’s made Jackson one of the favorites in the MVP race—but more importantly, he looks ready to lead his team on a deep postseason run.