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Just about three years ago the Baltimore Ravens reinvented themselves, on the fly, with Lamar Jackson replacing Joe Flacco as starting quarterback, ushering in an option rushing attack the likes of which had not been seen in pro football for quite some time.

It quickly reached the point where running for 200 yards or more any given Sunday wasn't even a big deal anymore. Rushing for 3,000 yards a season as a team, led by Jackson, was getting to be ho-hum. Three dudes in the top 10 of the NFL in average yards per carry? Yeah, nothing to see here. That's just how the Ravens roll.

And, sure, for one Sunday night this season, with the football world watching to see if the Ravens could finally get past the Chiefs, they made it look easy rolling up 250 yards on the ground to beat their rival … but that has been an anomaly and not the norm in this young 2021 season. Seems to me like this offense is shedding its old skin, evolving and morphing in new ways. And holding them to their old standard, from 2018-2020, when they rolled up nearly 2,000 more ground yards than any other team, may be getting passe.

What if I told you that through the first month of the NFL season, no team is chucking the ball around like the Ravens. No unit is attacking defenses with more air yards than Baltimore. No quarterback is averaging more yards per completion than Jackson, Hollywood Brown is in the top seven in the NFL in yards per catch, and Mark Andrews is second among all tight ends in air yards per target. What if I told you that this team was starting to flash some secondary receiving options, Jackson is plundering teams who continue to stack the box with defenders and the Ravens are about to get their first-round pick, receiver Rashod Bateman, back from a training camp surgery? 

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The last two weeks, Jackson and the downfield passing game have carried this team, especially Sunday in Denver when Baltimore averaged just 3.4 yards per carry (second-lowest since Jackson became their starter) and did not have a run over 11 yards. None of their aging backs looked very impressive and the Broncos stacked the box against them. And Jackson went after Denver's vaunted secondary time and again and won the game throwing the ball in the pocket. The week before, he spearheaded a bombs-away approach that produced five passing plays of 24 yards or longer, and would have easily thrown for over 350 yards if Brown had held on to very catchable deep would-be TD passes.

Consider the following stats about Jackson:

  • Leads the NFL in yards per completion (14.36), over a yard ahead of anyone else (Matthew Stafford is second at 13.28), and well above the league average (11.24)
  • Leads the NFL in air yards per passing attempt (11.60), a staggering three yards per pass more than anyone else (Aaron Rodgers is second at 9.71) and well above the league average (8.06)
  • Leads the NFL in play action passing attempts
  • Leads the NFL in play action attempts on first down (completing over 77% of those passes)
  • First player in NFL history with 1,000 yards passing and 250 yards rushing through the first four games of a season

There are some interesting early trends afoot, and the strength of this offensive roster is starting to tilt, after trading Pro Bowl tackle Orlando Brown, Jr. and losing All Pro tackle Ronnie Stanley to what could be a season-long injury (and possibly even beyond that) and losing top running backs J.K. Dobbins and Gus Edwards for the year before the season and yet to play a snap with premier blocking tight end Nick Boyle. That, along with Jackson, made the revolutionary run game go, but running Jackson that much in the option game always carried risks, they lack elite personnel now -- leaning on aging backs Latavius Murray, Le'Veon Bell and Devonta Freeman, who were picked up off the street -- while there receiving group is suddenly teaming with athletes with considerable upside who are quick and twitchy.

But Brown is continuing to improve and run better routes and develop, and he currently ranks 10th in receiving yards, seventh in yards per catch (17.16) and fourth in air yards per target (15.89). Impressive stuff. James Proche, in his second year, is emerging as a chain-mover in the slot, Andrews is one of the better move tight ends in the game and Bateman could be a difference maker on the outside. All of a sudden, there are more options than ever for Jackson, and more reason to believe that whatever losses come in the run game (it's not going to be historic for the first time since 2017), Jackson and the downfield approach can make up for.

First down is becoming a passing down for the Ravens, as crazy as that sounds. And as long as teams defend them as the Broncos and Lions did, or close to it, that will be the case. They don't have secondary tight end options in the passing game (not that can separate and win consistently) and maybe the receivers are going to outshine the running backs for the first time in a while.

The offensive line gives me pause. And they may not have an NFL caliber starting left tackle on the roster. There are risk inherent in dropping Jackson back 40 times a game with this unit as well (though still likely not as much as running him 15 times a game might invite), and in Denver the Ravens were able to hit big plays out of hybrid protection schemes that steered closer to max protect. If that is even remotely sustainable, and if they do manage to find a feature back, then things could really get interesting.

It also makes you wonder just what this offense may have looked like if Dobbins (who was handling multiple receiver spots with aplomb during training camp) and Edwards were available to continue gashing teams in the power option looks as well. Expanding the passing game to accentuate the running backs was a major offseason point of emphasis (as was play action). Bell might be able to do some of that stuff, and with him just getting his legs under him in his debut Sunday, it's fair to expect more to come.

It'll all be on display Monday night. And I suspect Jackson's passing prowess somewhat outshines and obscures anything he does running. Chucking it deep on early downs is the Ravens' new thing. Let's see if it sticks.