When the Ravens selected Lamar Jackson with the final pick of the first round in the 2018 draft, they sent a message about their future. For most of the previous decade, head coach John Harbaugh’s Ravens had an established, familiar identity: They were built around an excellent defense, and the Joe Flacco–led offense did what it could to hold up its end of the bargain. That formula led to a Super Bowl win and seven postseason appearances. But it all got flipped on its head when the team drafted Jackson.
Rather than attempting to shoehorn Jackson—who’d won a Heisman at Louisville in part because of his skills as a rusher—into a conventional NFL offense, the Ravens created a system that’s unlike any other. The bones of it were in place during the second half of last season, when Jackson took the reins from Flacco and led the team to a playoff appearance, and it’s been fully fleshed out in 2019. Baltimore’s 37-20 win over the Patriots on Sunday night showed the best of what that offense can be.
In an era when most teams are content to line up in three-receiver sets and throw the ball about 65 percent of the time, the Ravens ran the ball 41 times on Sunday and consistently lined up with three or four players in the backfield. Jackson still did his fair share of passing, finishing 17-of-23 on the day for 163 yards and a touchdown. Overall, the Ravens piled up 372 yards of total offense, including 210 on the ground, against one of the best statistical defenses the NFL has ever seen through eight games. New England had no answers for Baltimore’s deceptive, multifaceted running game. Whether it was Jackson keeping the ball on designed runs or Mark Ingram hammering the Patriots between the tackles, the Ravens routinely gashed a group that hadn’t given up more than 14 points in a game this season.
Jackson has made noticeable strides as a passer since his rookie season, but his running abilities are still the focal point of this Baltimore offense. And that goes beyond the damage he does when carrying the ball. The Ravens came in to Sunday’s game ranked no. 1 in rushing DVOA, in large part because of the impact that Jackson has when he’s not the one who ends up running. Jackson’s mobility has led the Ravens to use option plays at the league’s highest rate. On those plays, they leave a read defender unblocked, which flips the math at the line of scrimmage in Baltimore’s favor. That advantage makes the jobs of each member of the offense easier. Running backs see larger creases. Offensive linemen can quickly climb to the second level without having to linger on double-teams. And the play-action generates space for Ravens pass catchers. Beyond Jackson’s own production, his presence alone helps drive Baltimore’s offense.
The nuts and bolts of the Ravens’ scheme are a crucial part of why this team looks like an AFC contender, but Baltimore’s biggest achievement during the past two years has been the overhaul of its big-picture approach. Harbaugh had been the Ravens head coach for a decade by the time they drafted Jackson. It would have been easy for an established coach like him to be set in his ways, unwilling to find new ideas or embrace innovation. Instead, the Ravens have become arguably the most progressive, forward-thinking organization in the NFL. Earlier this season, Harbaugh cited analytics when discussing his aggressive tendencies on fourth down. The speed-centric team-building plan Baltimore deployed this offseason—which included drafting Marquise Brown in the first round—required a unified vision. And no other team has built an offensive system more conducive to maximizing its quarterback’s talents.
Finding excellent young players like Brown, tight end Mark Andrews, and left tackle Ronnie Stanley has helped make the Lamar Jackson experiment a success, but the most astounding part of the Ravens’ plan is that they were willing to try it at all. It should seem like common sense that an NFL team would explore every avenue to put its players in the best possible positions to succeed, but every season, the league is filled with teams that don’t grasp how to do it. Too many coaches abide by rigid schemes and values, and in the process allow the best versions of their teams to slip away. Baltimore has found its ideal approach and committed to it fully—and that’s created a style, identity, and direction that’s entirely the Ravens’ own.
Luckily, that direction included one of the most electrifying young players to enter the league in some time. No matter how sound the plan to build around Jackson might have been, it wouldn’t have made much of a difference if he hadn’t become a player who is worth all that effort. Pragmatism has been the foundation of Baltimore’s success this season, but what makes Jackson great isn’t logical or conventional. He belongs in any conversation about the most dynamic quarterbacks to ever play the sport, and he’s rapidly becoming appointment viewing alongside other young QBs like Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson. The Ravens have figured out how to construct a high-powered offense around Jackson. Now, the question is just how far that offense can take them.
By knocking off the Patriots, the 6-2 Ravens now have a real chance to lock up the no. 1 seed in the AFC. It’ll be a tough road, considering they’re still one game behind New England, and the Patriots will play what amounts to a Division III schedule down the stretch. But even if they don’t secure home field, the Ravens proved on Sunday night that they belong in the NFL’s elite. And they’ve gotten there by using the most clear-eyed team-building plan in recent memory. As franchises try to find the right strategies to guide their futures, the Ravens’ approach has been illuminating. And their success is a welcome sight.