The Ravens offense stinks. Sorry to be blunt, but that is the most apt description for a unit that’s averaged 16.6 points through its past five games and has scored just seven touchdowns in that span. Almost miraculously, Baltimore has managed to win two of those five games, maintaining a lead in the competitive AFC North and a 74 percent chance of making the playoffs, per FiveThirtyEight. So this prolonged offensive slump hasn’t totally derailed this season. But it has knocked things off track.
Just a few short weeks ago, the Ravens were atop the AFC standings and seemed like a favorite to make the Super Bowl. Now though, their odds of winning a championship have plummeted to 3 percent, per FiveThirtyEight, and their chances of just winning the division would drop below 50 percent with a loss to the Packers on Sunday. That’s a lot of doom and gloom for an 8-5 team that’s just a game back of the AFC-leading Patriots, all while having the league’s worst injury luck. But the pessimism surrounding this team—and the offense in particular—doesn’t just stem from the last month. This mounting frustration can actually be traced back to the end of Baltimore’s 14-2 campaign in 2019.
Nearly two years have passed since the Titans pulled off a shocking upset in the AFC divisional round and reignited conversations about Lamar Jackson’s ability to operate as a pocket passer. At the time, Lamar’s loudest critics posited that Tennessee had laid out a successful defensive blueprint for how to slow down the 2019 MVP. Here’s how former Titans defensive back Logan Ryan described the plan:
“We wanted to give him loaded boxes all night to get him out of the run game. We were either playing with a loaded box and man-to-man and make him beat us throwing the ball outside mano-a-mano, or we were going to play a zone defense. … So we had eight-, nine-man boxes all night. You play Madden and run Engage Eight all day, it’s hard to run the ball.”
The Titans dared Jackson to beat them as a passer, and he couldn’t. At least that was the common takeaway from the game. Never mind that the Ravens star racked up 508 yards of total offense despite routinely being let down by his receivers, who dropped several key passes that night. The 28-12 loss seemed to speak for itself: Tennessee had figured out Lamar.
It’s hard to push back against that notion. Twenty-three months later, the general strategy laid out by Ryan continues to be effective against this Ravens offense, and Lamar hasn’t been able to replicate the success he enjoyed in 2019 for more than a few games at a time. Maybe that’s a sign that Jackson hasn’t progressed as a passer and that those who questioned his long-term viability were on the right side of history. But it’s hard to reconcile that theory with his 2021 performance before this slump, when Lamar was throwing downfield more often and doing so with more accuracy than ever before. Instead, maybe the more logical explanation for this offensive inconsistency is the one that many Lamar backers have proposed: that offensive coordinator Greg Roman’s inability to expand Baltimore’s limited pass game has held the 24-year-old back.
Not too long ago, it was believed that the Ravens had built the perfect offense for Lamar and that their success in 2019 was proof of concept. But I’d actually argue the opposite: Whatever success Lamar has enjoyed during his career has happened in spite of Roman’s offense, which has only made it easier for defenses to employ strategies that have given the Ravens issues during the past two seasons.
Before we get into the details of how defenses are slowing Baltimore’s offense, let’s briefly talk about how Roman designs his scheme. Not much has changed since Roman served as Jim Harbaugh’s offensive coordinator in San Francisco a decade ago. He’s still using extra backs and tight ends to help block up power run concepts. And while he’s added pre-snap motion elements to mess with defenders’ reads and create better blocking angles, he’s been aided by the help of the greatest running talent we’ve ever seen at the quarterback position.
All the cool shit the Ravens do in the run game comes at a cost. In order to get that fullback on the field, you have to take a receiver off. In order to run that receiver on a jet motion before the snap, you have to accept that it eliminates him as a true vertical threat. In order to field those condensed, run-heavy formations, you have to live with heavier boxes. All of this makes defending the run a lot harder for the defense, but it constricts the space the defense has to account for in the passing game. Take a look at this screenshot from the Ravens’ 24-22 loss to the Browns on Sunday:
There are two running backs in the backfield and a tight end motioning across the formation. If the Ravens run the ball, the possibilities are endless in terms of blocking concepts. But with only two immediate vertical threats on the line of scrimmage, the Browns’ secondary is hardly being threatened. Mark Andrews, the tight end, could run a vertical route in theory, but given the motion, it would take a hell of a lot longer for him to get downfield. On this play, he ends up running to the flat—which is typically what happens—and the Browns have no problem covering the play-action passing concept, forcing Lamar to scramble.
That’s just one play, but this has been a common theme for the offense since Roman took over in 2019, and defenses have answered by moving their safeties closer to the line of scrimmage. According to Next Gen Stats, the Ravens have faced the shallowest safety alignment in the league in each of the past three seasons. And if you’re wondering whether that’s a product of Lamar’s perceived shortcomings as a passer, know that Aaron Rodgers’s Packers rank just above the Ravens in that stat for the 2021 season.
Roman’s scheme is what allows defenses to play like this. He’s forcing Lamar, who is one of the most dangerous space players we have ever seen, to operate in a phone booth and then inviting the defense to load up that phone booth without any real risk for doing so. That strategy worked in 2019 because the Ravens had an elite offensive line that was capable of winning against loaded boxes. But that is no longer the case, after the team lost several key pieces, including future Hall of Famer Marshal Yanda and Orlando Brown Jr. And even if you include that 2019 season, which looks more like an outlier with every passing year, the Ravens run game gets more efficient as you subtract run defenders from the box.
Ravens Run EPA by Box Defenders, 2019-2021
That’s generally the case for teams across the league, but in a 2019 piece, FiveThirtyEight’s Josh Hermsmeyer found that the defensive box count is largely dictated by the personnel grouping fielded by the offense. In other words, Roman’s preference for heavier personnel groupings is setting the Ravens up for inefficient runs. In 2019, the offensive line was able to overcome the extra defenders in the box and still produce a healthy EPA against those looks:
Ravens Run EPA by Box Defenders, 2019
This season, Baltimore’s line isn’t winning nearly as much, but that hasn’t stopped Roman from employing his power run game—the Ravens are, once again, leading the league in two-back formation usage and gap scheme runs, per Sports Info Solutions.
Now let’s go back to that playoff loss to the Titans, which has served as a clear turning point for Roman’s offense. As Ryan explained, Tennessee’s plan was to load up the box and take away the run. As you can probably imagine, it wasn’t a unique strategy for Ravens opponents that year. Every defense wanted to stop Baltimore’s run game. But it was the way in which then-defensive coordinator Dean Pees went about doing it that caught the attention of coaches across the league.
The Titans used various strategies to get extra numbers in the box, but especially a concept called “Cover 2 Invert,” which has become a bit of a meme on NFL Twitter due to its ineffectiveness against deep passes over the middle. The coverage plays out like a typical Cover 2 defense, with two defenders splitting the deep part of the field, two defenders manning the flats, and three defenders over the middle. Typically, the two deep players are safeties and the two flat players are cornerbacks. But on Cover 2 invert, the cornerbacks man the deep areas.
Pre-snap, this looks like Cover 3, a design element that makes it particularly useful on passing downs. But Pees realized it could be a nifty way to defend the Ravens run game because it allows the defense to get a ninth guy in the box without asking cornerbacks to defend the run. In a typical Cover 2, the corners are tasked with containing runs to the outside. With Cover 2 Invert, the corners drop deep and typically a safety and linebacker play the “contain” role.
In this clip, the Titans play Cover 2 Invert on two consecutive snaps. The first is a run; the second is a pass. Watch the safety in the middle of the field drop into the box as a late run defender on the first play. On the pass play, the safety drops into his zone responsibility while the two “contain” players get out to flats.
Throughout the game, the Titans safeties were able to attack the run box aggressively, whether they were playing that inverted Cover 2:
Or a more traditional two-high look:
I can assure you that Bill Belichick, whom Pees worked under in New England from 2004 to 2009, studied the hell out of that film. Earlier in the 2019 season, his Pats gave up 37 points to Lamar and the Ravens. Belichick didn’t throw any real curveballs at Lamar in that game; he just brought an extra safety into the box and played man coverage on the outside. Baltimore had seen similar game plans throughout the season and had no problem moving the ball against New England.
Things changed the following season when the two teams met in Week 10. Having seen his former assistant stifle the Ravens with that inverted Cover 2 scheme, Belichick went ahead and made the whole plane out of it. Does this look familiar?
The Patriots called that coverage over and over again, and the Ravens couldn’t find an answer. After nearly scoring 40 points on a New England defense that led the NFL in DVOA the previous season, they scored 17 points against a defense that finished 26th in DVOA.
Now, every defense hasn’t adopted this particular strategy, but the general concept of getting nine players in the box has been the go-to philosophy for just about every team that’s faced Baltimore since that Titans game. The Dolphins, for instance, lined up in a Cover 0 look on most snaps in the 22-10 win that kicked off this recent slump for Baltimore’s offense.
Not sure I've ever seen anything like it in the NFL.— Josh Cohen (@JCohen_NFL) November 12, 2021
MIA showed cover 0, presnap, 40 times vs BAL. Forty! pic.twitter.com/pPMZfZRAzu
Roman still has no answers for these overly aggressive defenses. One solution could be a fully fleshed-out passing game. But as we covered earlier, that would require Roman to strip down his expansive run game, which would be like asking Nic Cage to stop overacting. It’s literally the only thing he’s good for at this point.
Another solution that was thrown around late last year would be to hire a pass game coordinator. The only problem is … the Ravens already had one! It was David Culley, who left to coach the Texans this past offseason. Keith Williams was brought in to replace him, but little has changed. We’re still seeing the same issues that have plagued this passing game for three years now: poor spacing, timing, and a lack of coverage-based adjustments built into play designs. As Football Outsiders’ Derrik Klassen recently observed, Baltimore’s wideouts just seem to amble in the direction of zone defenders with no option to adjust their routes to find open space.
It’s hard to pin that on Williams or Culley when everything Roman does in the run game limits what the Ravens can do in the passing game. There are only so many pass concepts you can run when there are three or four guys in the backfield on most snaps.
I’m also hesitant to blame any of this on the receiving corps, especially after the upgrading Baltimore did in the offseason. Veteran Sammy Watkins and rookie Rashod Bateman have joined holdovers Marquise Brown and Mark Andrews to form a solid group of pass catchers. We just rarely ever see them all on the field at the same time. Injuries have played a part in that—Bateman missed five games with a groin injury and Watkins has missed three with a hamstring injury. But Roman generally prefers two-receiver formations, as evidenced by Baltimore’s usage of 11 personnel (one back, one tight end, and three receivers), which ranks 30th in the NFL this season per Sports Info Solutions.
It’s not like Lamar can’t handle a more robust passing game either. He ran a slightly modified pro-style system at Louisville under Bobby Petrino. In fact, that passing game was more voluminous than what he’s running under Roman. Forget about an expanded dropback package; the Ravens barely have a screen game!
Baltimore has been praised for its belief in Lamar and the lengths it’s gone to in order to build a support system around him. But if they really believed in him as a quarterback, they would have put him in a passing game fit for the NFL from Day 1. Sure, this current setup has led to some good results, but that has more to do with Lamar’s brilliance than Roman’s scheme—and those results have turned bad of late. That might be the sign John Harbaugh needs to finally overhaul the offense. And if that’s the case, this step back in 2021 could allow the Ravens—and Lamar—to take some massive steps forward in the near future.