Of all the adjectives that could describe the Baltimore Ravens heading into 2019, one near the top of the list, no question, is this:
Yup, as surely as they wear purple, the Ravens are going against the grain of several accepted NFL norms.
It’s a league in which offense rules, made clear by the fact that the top four scoring teams will play for the conference championships Sunday. Yet the Ravens have been a defensive-oriented team for years, a trend that continued when they ranked No. 1 in total defense in 2018.
It’s also a league in which passing-oriented offenses are becoming more prevalent, made clear by the fact that total air yardage in the league (from all 32 teams) has risen 12.5 percent in the past decade.
Yet the Ravens have committed to more of a run-oriented attack now that Lamar Jackson has replaced Joe Flacco at quarterback.
Ladies and gentlemen, your Baltimore Ravens … definitely not copycats.
Now, I admit I’m painting with the broadest of brushes here, honestly probably too broad from their perspective. Although they ran the ball a ton once Jackson took over, they’re aware they need to pass more and the goal is balance. They’re also aware a top-ranked defense, while certainly an enviable asset, may not be the load-carrier it once was because of how the game is played now.
Nonetheless, they’ve gone to lengths to establish a defense-and-running cornerstone, which prompts a crucial question: Can they win that way?
I can already hear the naysayers, those who believe the team is out of touch, doomed, too unconventional.
My response is … really?
While Sunday’s collision of the highest-scoring offenses implies that the best teams are passing the ball all over the place, look closer. Three of the top six rushing offenses will be on display. The New Orleans Saints and New England Patriots are led by future Hall of Fame quarterbacks, but they’re deeply committed to running the ball, as are the Los Angeles Rams. Of Sunday’s competitors, only the Kansas City Chiefs really fling the ball around, and that’s partly because they’re now without running back Kareem Hunt.
Meanwhile, three of the league’s top four passing offenses didn’t even qualify for the postseason in 2018. Neither did five of the top six teams in passing attempts.
This is telling me a strong ground game can still provide the foundation of an offense that takes you deep into January.
As for whether the Ravens would be wise to invest significantly enough in the defense to keep it among the league’s best, that’s certainly an issue worth debating. But regardless, I don’t believe a strong defense has become pointless, football’s version of a dinosaur.
The Denver Broncos rode their defense to a Super Bowl triumph a few years ago, carrying ready-to-retire Peyton Manning all the way. A few years before that, the Seattle Seahawks also used a defense-and-running template to win a Super Bowl.
The game hasn’t changed so much since then to render defenses irrelevant today. A year ago, the defense-first Jacksonville Jaguars played for the AFC title and blew a late lead. The ability to stop opponents certainly helped the Ravens secure the AFC North title in 2018.
Admittedly, there also are many recent examples of offenses carrying their teams to glory. Two years ago, Tom Brady passed for 466 yards in the Patriots’ Super Bowl victory. Last year, the Patriots and Philadelphia Eagles combined for 874 net passing yards in the Super Bowl.
If the Chiefs beat the Patriots Sunday and go on to win the Super Bowl, it’ll certainly send the message that you don’t really need a running game (they were No. 16 in 2018) or defense (they were No. 31) to reach the mountaintop these days.
But that wouldn’t mean the Chiefs’ formula is the only one capable of working. You watch, another team will use a different formula to go all the way next season. Sports never stay in one place philosophically. They’re always evolving.
Yes, you have to move the ball and score these days. If the Ravens (or any team) can’t keep pace, they’re sunk.
But there are all sorts of formulas a team can use to compete with upper-echelon opponents. And win.