Last year, Lamar Jackson and the Baltimore Ravens offense took the league by storm. Jackson did things nobody in the history of the league had ever done, leading the NFL in passing touchdowns while also rushing for over 1,000 yards. The Ravens built the most prolific ground game in modern NFL history around his skill set, and they married that variable rushing attack to a play-action passing package that was as diverse and efficient as any in the league.
Baltimore faltered in the playoffs, but given that the team was returning most of its core offensive pieces this year (plus a few more explosive skill players like J.K. Dobbins and Devin Duvernay), there was every reason to think it would again be one of the league's best offenses -- even if the Ravens did regress to the mean, as many predicted, simply because it would be almost impossible to match last year's results.
Instead, that hasn't happened. The Ravens have just regressed, period. The backslide shows up just about everywhere.
|Year||2019||NFL Rk||2020||NFL Rk|
Let me stop you in your tracks before you even say it: The league did not "figure the Ravens out" because they're "just a gimmick offense." The Ravens run most of the same core concepts as a lot of other NFL teams, just from different formations and with other bells and whistles they can attach because their quarterback has some skills no other player in the league (outside of perhaps Kyler Murray) possesses.
Instead, a look of the game film and a deeper dive into the numbers reveals a trio of culprits behind the team's offensive malaise: an offensive line that has taken a step backward; struggles connecting on the type of deep passes that provided a significant chunk of their big plays a year ago; and struggles against zone defenses.
Let's start with the blocking. First of all, it shouldn't be that surprising that the offensive line would take a step backward. Last year's Ravens ranked third in the league in Pro Football Focus' run-blocking grades and first in pass blocking, third in Football Outsiders' Adjusted Line Yards, and eighth in Adjusted Sack Rate.
It would be difficult to maintain that level of excellence from one year to the next no matter what, but it's especially difficult when arguably the best guard in the history of football (Marshal Yanda) retires and leaves a hole in the middle of your line. It's even more difficult when you have injury issues up front, including a season-ending ankle injury for star left tackle Ronnie Stanley. So, it's not all that surprising that the Ravens' line has taken a small step backward in a whole bunch of different measurements.
|PFF Run Blk||78.2||66.4|
|Adj Line Yds||4.73||4.18|
|Neg Run %||16.1%||17.7%|
|PFF Pass Blk||87.0||76.7|
|Adj Sack Rt||6.0%||7.5%|
A small step back across the board, though, can have a cascading effect, and that seems to be what has happened this season. The small step backward in run-blocking has led to more negative runs, fewer explosive runs, and fewer yards before contact per attempt. All of those things have meant worse down-and-distance situations for the NFL's run-heaviest team, which has led to lower third- and fourth-down conversion rates, which in turn have led to a dip in overall yardage and scoring.
A slight step backward in pass blocking has led to Jackson taking sacks more often than he did a year ago, but also being pressured considerably more often as well. Last season, Jackson was pressured on only 31.2 percent of his dropbacks, per Pro Football Focus and Tru Media. This year, that figure has spiked to 37.7 percent. In turn, his scramble rate (how often he has scrambled as a percentage of pressures) has dipped from 28.5 percent to 24.1 percent, and his yards per scramble average has plummeted from 10.5 to 6.4 yards.
The increase in pressure rate seems likely tied to the fact that the Ravens have had some issues solving zone defenses this year. The Ravens saw zone looks on just over 63 percent of Jackson's pass attempts last season, per PFF and Tru Media; that figure is up just a bit this year, to nearly 68 percent. But Jackson has been pressured far more often when defenses have played zone this year (41.7 percent of dropbacks) than he was last year (26.1 percent). Jackson has thrown only four touchdowns and three interceptions against zones this year, and his yards per scramble average is down nearly two full yards, from 7.7 to 5.9.
Nothing epitomizes the team's offensive regression this year, though, like the odd discontinuity of the deep passing game. Last year, Jackson was one of the best deep-ball passers in the NFL. He completed 19 of 55 throws of at least 20 yards, per PFF and Tru Media, for 659 yards, seven touchdowns and two interceptions. This year, he's just 8 of 29 for 252 yards, one score and one pick. He has missed Marquise Brown down the field so many times that I had to stop counting. Some of the misses are understandable and just the kind of thing that happens in football, but some of them have been pretty horrendous for any passer, let alone one who looked as good throwing these types of passes as Jackson did a year ago.
Brown has been making noise about a lack of usage this year, and considering the team talked up a major role for him after he was limited so often due to various injuries last season, it makes some degree of sense. But I also can't help but feel we'd be hearing a lot fewer complaints if a few of those seemingly inexplicable misses deep down the field instead ended up in his hands, and then in the end zone. He has only two touchdowns this season, but should almost certainly have at least five or six.
Being unable to consistently take the top off the defense has affected the rest of the passing attack. Baltimore's offense doesn't have much of a quick game built into it. That's a flaw of design, but also makes at least some sense given their personnel and style of play. They want to take shots down the field, over the top of the defense. But if they're not there, they need to be willing and able to take the short stuff, get 6 or 7 yards, and keep it moving. They've done some of that this season, but not really by design. It's usually via a screen or checkdown, and occasionally an RPO pop pass to Mark Andrews over the middle.
None of this is to say the Ravens' offense is broken, or that there's no hope of it turning into the juggernaut it was last year. Things are just a little bit off-line right now. Given the talent on hand, the coaches scheming things up, and some of the defenses they're set to play the next few weeks -- the Titans on Sunday, the Cowboys in Week 13 -- that might even happen pretty soon.