Seeing Lamar Jackson in the pistol formation – taking the snap from a few yards behind center with a running back directly behind him – is a familiar sight in the Ravens offense.
Baltimore uses the pistol far more than any other NFL team this season. According to NFL’s Next Gen Stats, the Ravens lined up in the pistol 219 times through their first eight games. That's more than the rest of the league combined (200 times) during that same span.
Offensive Coordinator Greg Roman has good reason to love the pistol formation. As teams look for ways to contain Lamar Jackson and the NFL's most dynamic rushing attack, the pistol makes it more difficult to predict where Baltimore will attack.
"It allows you to run the ball either direction," Roman said. "When you're in the shotgun, it's pretty easy … people can make some calls, some line stunts, etc. I like the shotgun, too, don't get me wrong. But the pistol formation allows you to run your whole offense. They don't know which way you're going. That's good for the offense."
Roman's fondness for the pistol goes back to his college days as an assistant coach at Stanford. He spent two days studying the pistol with former Nevada Head Coach Chris Ault, known as the father of the pistol formation. Roman's eyes lit up when talking about learning the offense.
"By the time the plane landed [back in California], I had the whole system mapped out," Roman said. "I was so excited about just having that club in the bag, so to speak, and we worked on it there at Stanford. We were playing USC in 2010 and I pulled it out for a few plays, put it back in the drawer for a little bit. But yes, those things are all filed up here."
Expect Roman to use the pistol again this weekend against the Buffalo Bills, where he was offensive coordinator in 2015 and part of 2016. Roman was let go by former head coach Rex Ryan two games into the 2016 season, then hired by the Ravens as a senior offensive assistant/tight ends coach the following offseason. This will be his first time back, but Roman says it has no personal significance.
"Just the next one up," Roman said. "We have a lot of people here that are very serious about what we do, and all of our focus is dedicated to that."
Having a quarterback with Jackson's dynamic running skills is an advantage in any formation. But with Roman calling the plays and probing for ways to help the Ravens produce big numbers, using the pistol has become one of the keys.
David Culley's Signature Coaching Style Resonates With Players
Another former Bills assistant coach on the Ravens staff is David Culley, who was Buffalo's quarterbacks coach and now serves as the Ravens' assistant head coach/passing coordinator/wide receiver's coach. During practices, Culley's voice is often heard and players love his input.
"He doesn't sugarcoat anything," wide receiver Willie Snead IV said. "He says, 'This is who we are, this is what we're going to do.' When you get the ball, do your thing, but don't look 20 plays down the script trying to figure out when you're going to get the ball. Play the next play. Make your blocks. Be physical. It's not a huge, receiver-driven offense, but he has a unique way of showing us how important our roles are."
Head Coach John Harbaugh praised Culley for his ability to get players to do things that aren't necessarily their favorite things. The Ravens offense runs the ball a lot and tight end Mark Andrews is the leading pass catcher. Baltimore requires consistent blocking from its wide receivers to be most effective, and Culley has helped the wide receiver group buy in.
"The wide receivers are playing really well," Harbaugh said. "They're doing things that a lot of wide receivers don't do well, in terms of the unselfish stuff. One of the measurements of a great coach is the ability to get guys to do the things that it's not normal that players would want to do. The hard things, that's what the great coaches probably do the best."
Snead said the respect wide receivers have for Culley helps them accept his message.
"He's definitely a player's coach," Snead said. "He can get on you, but he's a good enough man that he gets the point across that, 'Hey, I'm trying to help you here.' His ability to relate to players is great. Twenty-five years in this game, he's coached a lot of players with their attitudes and personalities. He's making our room better. I just want to gain knowledge and he has it. He's an awesome guy to be around. Really glad he's here."
Ravens Know John Brown's Speed Makes Him Dangerous
Former Ravens wide receiver John Brown is having a superb season with the Bills (61 catches, 882 yards, five touchdowns) after signing with them this past offseason. He's one of the main reasons Buffalo is 9-3 heading into Sunday's game.
In strong-armed quarterback Josh Allen, Brown has someone who targets Brown often and looks to attack downfield.
"His nickname is still 'Smoke', and it's that for a reason," Defensive Coordinator Wink Martindale said. "He's doing really well."
Ravens cornerback Marlon Humphrey had some intense training camp matchups with Brown last year, and Humphrey didn't always come out on top. He respects Brown's ability not only to run deep routes, but to secure the ball once it reaches his hands.
"Contested catches he usually makes," Humphrey said. "You can't get the ball out late trying to rake it. 'Smoke', when he was here, he was a really good player. We had some really good battles in practice. To get another go at him in live game reps will be really exciting. I'm looking forward to it."
Harbaugh said containing Brown and Buffalo's passing attack will be a key to the game.
"They're using him really well," Harbaugh said. They're doing a great job with him and with [Cole] Beasley as well. Those are the two top targets. They're all doing a good job, but John is their guy. He's the guy downfield. He's the guy on the crossing routes. He's just been an explosive factor for them."
Ravens Defenders Give Their Scouting Report on Josh Allen
The Ravens are used to seeing opponents frustrated by Jackson's running ability. But Allen is also a prolific runner, with the third-most rushing yards (430) among quarterbacks this season trailing only Jackson (977) and Kyler Murray of the Arizona Cardinals (446).
Jackson's MVP-type season is overshadowing many quarterbacks, but Allen is another second-year player having a terrific season. Over his last seven games, Allen has 16 touchdowns passes and one interception.
When Jackson and Allen take the field Sunday, they will have already combined for 1,407 yards rushing, the most ever for two opposing quarterbacks in a game. The Ravens have two tasks when it comes to stopping Allen from running – catching him, then tackling him to the ground. Listed at 6-foot-5, 237 pounds, Allen will sometimes run over defenders instead of trying to avoid them.
"He's a big kid, man," Defensive Coordinator Wink Martindale said. "He's like tackling a tight end scrambling, so it's going to be a great challenge. We'll see what happens on Sunday. He makes a lot of plays with his feet, and that's been their success the last five, six weeks."
Safety Earl Thomas III said the Ravens will try to make Allen as uncomfortable as possible.
"What's impressed me the most about him is his patience in the pocket," Thomas said. "He never seems in a hurry. Hopefully, that's not the case against us. He has a very strong arm. He can throw from the opposite hash. He's making all the throws all over the field. So yes, credit to him."