Former NFL scout Matt Williamson writes about the league from an X's and O's perspective.
Let’s get this straight: Defending against the Ravens is a nightmare.
Baltimore has a legit MVP candidate in second-year QB Lamar Jackson and averages 33.8 points and a ridiculous 207.8 rushing yards per game. (San Francisco is second in rushing yards per game, 59.8 yards per game behind the Ravens.) Jackson alone averages seven yards per rushing attempt. No other player in the league averages six or more, and only eight players (all running backs) have more than Jackson’s 977 yards on the ground.
Here are more crazy numbers: Baltimore averages 6.3 yards per play, behind only Dallas, and 4.1 touchdowns per game, more than any team. The Ravens outscore opponents by a greater average margin (+15.6) than any team in the league. Baltimore also starts fast, averaging a league-leading 8.8 points in the first quarter.
How does Baltimore do it? And can the Ravens’ offense be stopped … or at least sidetracked?
Let’s dive in:
HOW THEY DO IT
Baltimore uses a wide variety of personnel groupings on offense. One of their favorites is "13 Personnel," with one running back, three tight ends and one wide receiver with Jackson and the O-line. That one running back is usually a power runner, Mark Ingram, and the wide receiver is one of the fastest players in the league, rookie Marquise "Hollywood" Brown, the first-round pick from Oklahoma.
The Ravens use tight ends extremely well, deploying them to create unusual blocking angles in the running game -- it's something rarely seen by defenses against other teams. Jackson is most comfortable passing to the middle of the field, where tight ends generally roam. But here is the key: If the defense decides to play its base personnel -- i.e., more bigger, slower people in a 4-3 or 3-4 -- against the Ravens' "13 Personnel," it simply isn’t fast enough to keep up with Jackson as a runner. And there is also the great danger of Baltimore max protecting and taking a deep shot to Brown, who excels at beating coverage.
But if a defense plays nickel or dime (five or six defensive backs) against Baltimore’s "13 Personnel," it will see a massive downhill dose of Ingram with eight men weighing 250 pounds or more blocking for him. This is just one of many conundrums Baltimore presents with its offensive personnel groupings.
The unsung heroes of Baltimore’s great offense is its offensive line. Ronnie Stanley has quietly become a star and one of the NFL’s premier left tackles, especially in protection. On the other side, Orlando Brown isn’t nearly as light on his feet as Stanley, but his extreme size (6-foot-8, 345 pounds) and length make getting around him in the passing game a huge challenge. Right guard Marshal Yanda, who's 35, is ageless and playing as well as ever. Also, Baltimore’s skill- position players are effective blockers and instrumental in breaking long runs -- especially for Jackson. Weaknesses? Baltimore can be vulnerable at center and left guard.
What will happen second time around?
Baltimore plays offense differently than any other team in the league from a schematic standpoint, and there is no way to properly prepare for Jackson until you see him live. You could put a wide receiver at quarterback in practice to simulate him, but it just isn’t the same; Jackson is physically stronger than his wiry frame (6-foot-2, 212 pounds) suggests. And no one is a comp for him as a passer.
It will be fascinating to see how defensive coordinators deal with Jackson his second time through the league. I'm especially interested what the Patriots' Bill Belichick, a defensive genius, will do against this phenom, who lit up New England in the Ravens' 37-20 win earlier this season.
Baltimore is awesome in the red zone, an area of the field where it often goes "empty" with Jackson alone in the backfield. Here are Ravens red-zone stats to chew on:
Keep in mind the empty formation never eliminates the running game. It helps spread a defense, even in tight quarters, giving it a lot to account for in pass coverage. Jackson, who has seven rushing touchdowns, often runs from this formation. But he also is capable passer in these tight areas of the field, often finding a one-on-on matchup to his liking.
HOW TO SLOW THEM (MAYBE)
No matter what zone coverage a defensive coordinator draws up, Baltimore (and other NFL teams) can find holes and use route combinations to exploit it. But if you play a lot of man coverage against Jackson, he will destroy a defense as a runner if his first read is covered. And even if a defense spies Jackson, in nine of out 10 instances, the spy can’t keep up with him, especially in space after he gets going. Zone coverage is the best answer against the Ravens, but it gives Jackson more predictable coverages to exploit. Against Baltimore, it's a damned-if-you do, damned-if-you-don't situation for defenses.
Have a pass-rush plan
You cannot rush Jackson like you would an ordinary quarterback. If you attack him hell-bent on getting a sack, he will often sidestep a rusher, even a free rusher, tuck the ball and run through a massive lane. My advice? Rush Jackson with the intent of keeping him bottled up in the pocket. Now that isn’t to say that Jackson can’t shred a defense from the pocket, but you at least have a chance if you keep him contained with a lot of big bodies around him. Getting Jackson on the ground is another matter.
Don't be distracted by 'window dressing'
No one uses more pre-snap motion than Baltimore -- it's a way for it to freeze and to manipulate defenders, to get them thinking about their assignments. Linebackers often look at this "window dressing" rather than what they should truly be keying on.
Defenders must do extensive film work leading into their matchup against the Ravens. Don't be dazzled by the bells and whistles of offensive coordinator Greg Roman’s masterfully designed scheme. If a linebacker is distracted by motion against Jackson, he may find himself looking at the name on the quarterback’s jersey in a blink of an eye.
Possess the football
Since its Week 8 bye, Baltimore’s defense has excelled, giving up 63 points in a five-game stretch. It's important to keep Jackson on the sidelines, limiting the possessions for the Ravens' offense. At 34 minutes and 32 seconds, Baltimore leads the league in time of possession by a little more than two minutes over second-place New England.
In losing to Baltimore 20-17 in Week 13, San Francisco limited the Ravens to eight possessions. (Rainy weather was a factor, as it slowed Jackson and the Ravens' deep passing game.) So against Baltimore, I'd stress to my offense the importance of taking the clock down to the very last second on every play. And I'd stress the importance of an effective running game to bleed the clock. San Francisco's Raheem Mostert rushed 146 yards against the Ravens, who have allowed 4.91 yards per rush in their past 10 games. That's an area opponents can exploit.
Excel on special teams
This goes hand in hand with possessing the football. During the John Harbaugh era in Baltimore, the Ravens (along with New England) have consistently played well on special teams. Baltimore regularly wins the hidden yardage game, and has the best kicker of all time in Justin Tucker. If you lose the special teams battle against the Ravens and their high-powered offense, you're done. Punt well, kick well. Get every yard you can on punt and kick returns. Every little bit counts against Baltimore.
Do a rain dance
Jackson admitted the ugly weather conditions at home against the 49ers negatively affected his passing. It certainly showed on the game tape. He's also unproven in snowy conditions, weather we surely will see in December and January in the Northeast. A wet, soft field also could slow Baltimore's offense. Sheesh, perhaps only New England can beat Baltimore, because Belichick can flip a switch to alter the weather, right?