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What’s Behind the Ravens’ Regression?

Baltimore’s offense has taken a step back this season, pulling it deeper into a crowded AFC playoff field

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

If the 2020 NFL regular season ended today, the Ravens would miss the playoffs. Luckily for Baltimore, it’s only Week 11 and assessing teams based on playoff seeding now is kind of like assessing game performance after three quarters, at which point the Ravens were beating the Titans 21-13 on Sunday. That was before three defenders—Chuck Clark, Marcus Peters and Marlon Humphrey—each whiffed on their attempts to tackle Titans receiver A.J. Brown on a 14-yard touchdown reception and before running back Derrick Henry ran free for a 29-yard score in overtime to win the game. The point is, a lot can happen in a short time.

In one year, Baltimore has gone from upstart challenger to Kansas City in the AFC to a team fighting to make the postseason, losers of three of their last four and the third-place team in their division. An offense that led the league with 2.95 points per drive last season now ranks 18th at 2.21. Reigning MVP Lamar Jackson has regressed in his second full season as a starter—his completion percentage is down from 66 percent in 2019 to 63 percent this year, his quarterback rating has fallen from a league-leading 82.3 to 62.3, and he’s already thrown as many interceptions through 10 games this season as he did in all of 2019 (6). The 2019 Ravens had dance parties in their locker room; the 2020 Ravens give sober assessments like the one Jackson offered after Sunday’s loss to the Titans: “It looked like that team wanted it more than us.”

Baltimore still has time to make a push. Thursday’s game against the Steelers is still on schedule, despite multiple Ravens players testing positive for COVID-19 on Monday, including running backs Mark Ingram and J.K. Dobbins. Should Baltimore lose, they’ll officially be out of the running for the AFC North title, but would still have a 63 percent chance to make the playoffs as a Wild Card team, according to FiveThirtyEight’s model. Their main competition would be the Dolphins and Raiders, the other 6-4 teams in the AFC, but the Ravens have decent odds compared to those teams because after they play the Steelers, their schedule includes the Cowboys, Browns, Jaguars, Giants and Bengals. Entering Week 11, Baltimore has the sixth-ranked defense and second-ranked special teams by DVOA, giving it the tools to make a playoff push.

The Ravens’ regression has been most acute on offense. So far this season, defenses have focused on shutting down the passing game and Jackson, and the coaching staff has struggled to adapt. They’re running out of time, too, with only six weeks remaining to find a counter. It’s not a new challenge: Last year’s league-leading offense applied a valuable lesson learned in the 2018 playoffs when the Chargers eliminated the Ravens by playing seven defensive backs on nearly every defensive snap of their Wild Card game. Baltimore countered in the offseason by prioritizing blockers on the offensive line and at tight end, and by signing Ingram, who made a Pro Bowl and averaged 5 yards per attempt last season. The Chargers had looked at what Jackson’s athleticism gave the Ravens and decided to counter it with lighter, faster defenders. It worked—Jackson posted a quarterback rating of 11.4 and was booed during the fourth quarter by Ravens fans—but Baltimore came back the following season with personnel groupings that dared any opponent to defend its offense similarly. For the most part, no one did, for fear of getting trampled by what was the NFL’s top rushing offense last season. The Ravens responded to that Wild Card loss by molding their offense into one that made opponents play the base defenses they like to attack. For a time, the Ravens were making all the right moves.

That’s changed this season. Pro Football Focus’s Mike Renner expertly analyzed how defenses have gone after Jackson and the Ravens this season and found that teams play more nickel and dime packages against Baltimore and use more man coverage. So far this season, the Ravens offense has seen six or more defensive backs on 102 snaps compared to 76 snaps in all of last season. Those defensive packages help take away the Ravens’ speed to the edges—important because of how often they use motion—and means teams can use a defender to spy Jackson while playing man-to-man to force him into tight-window throws.

It’s working. Entering Sunday, Jackson was averaging five yards per attempt and had an adjusted completion rate of 65 percent against man coverage, the worst and fifth-worst, respectively, according to PFF. Jackson’s running ability—a big reason teams like to spy Jackson—hasn’t been as effective as it was last year either: On 79 dropbacks against man coverage this year, Jackson has scrambled past the line of scrimmage just four times.

Attacking those light defenses on the ground hasn’t worked for the Ravens like it has in the past. One reason for that is the Ravens offensive line, which isn’t the same unit PFF rated as the second-best in the NFL last year. First, eight-time Pro Bowl guard Marshal Yanda retired this offseason. Then, All-Pro left tackle Ronnie Stanley and rookie right guard Tyre Phillips both suffered ankle injuries in Week 8. Stanley is out for the season; Phillips is expected to return to practice this week. Center Matt Skura was benched for the Titans game, meaning that Orlando Brown Jr., who switched from right to left tackle following Stanley’s injury, was the only Week 1 starter on the offensive line on Sunday.

The greater issue than health, though, is that the Ravens have been able to run the ball well—it just hasn’t mattered as much because defenses are more inclined to keep their focus on preventing big gains in the passing game. The Ravens still have the top rushing offense in the league by total yards, but that combined with the 31st passing offense works out to just 24th overall. That happens to also have been their offensive DVOA ranking heading into the Titans game, so it’s a reasonably good snapshot of where the Ravens offense is despite being able to run the ball.

The best way for the Ravens to quickly rediscover last season’s offensive potency is for Jackson to start beating those lighter defenses playing man coverage more often, either by making more tight-window throws or scrambling more effectively.

Beyond this year, Baltimore general manager Eric DeCosta can also try to find personnel solutions. Most of this year’s offense will be back next season—Skura and receiver Willie Snead are the only pending free agents who have played over 50 percent of this season’s offensive snaps. On defense, the Ravens will have to replace or re-sign defensive end Yannick Ngakoue, cornerback Jimmy Smith, outside linebackers Matt Judon and Pernell McPhee and defensive end Derek Wolfe.

According to Over The Cap, the Ravens project to have $22 million in effective salary-cap space in 2021, 10th-most in the league. Since their defensive losses will be more significant, most of that money will likely go to that side of the ball, but in an offseason when teams will be more constrained by the salary cap, and when more good players than usual will likely be cut as a result, Baltimore might be able to find a possession receiver to help open up the middle of the field, for example, and give Jackson some easier completion opportunities.

That, however, is next year. The Ravens still have six weeks to find out if they have another counter to deploy this season. They know as well as any team how quickly change can happen.