NFL Offenses Are Running to Catch Up Ravens' Revolutionary Approach
"The Ravens are zigging while everyone else is zagging" has been an oft-repeated phrase ever since the team installed a "revolutionary" run-heavy offense devised by Offensive Coordinator Greg Roman that coincided with Lamar Jackson becoming the starting quarterback.
While the wisdom of emphasizing the run in a pass-happy league has been questioned at times, it turns out that the Ravens were on to something, because a lot more teams are zigging this season.
Per ESPN's Dan Orlovksy, the league-wide average for yards per completion this season is 11.0, the lowest since 1933. Conversely, the league-wide average for yards per rush is 4.5, the highest in NFL history.
Those trends have resulted in a league-wide average of 21.8 points per game in regulation contests, the lowest in 13 seasons.
"What we're seeing right now in the NFL, even though these quarterbacks are widely talented, is the importance of running the football, being committed to doing it, doing it well, and that's really shaping how well your football team can win and play games offensively, not how far the quarterback can throw the football," Orlovsky said.
ESPN's Ryan Clark said the shift to an emphasis on the run is a reaction to defenses being built to defend the pass. On such defenses, players with quickness and agility are preferred over the large "space eaters" of a bygone era.
"Everything catches up to what's the main thing, and when you are morphing offensively into these spread offenses and you're throwing the football around, now your defenses morph as well," Clark said. "Right now, defensively, I don't want Reggie White, I don't want Michael Strahan, I want Von Miller. And that's why guys like T.J. Watt can be the Defensive Player of the Year because they're fast, they're agile, they can bend, they're quick.
"On the back end now, all we're teaching these kids is footwork, we're teaching these kids technique … and you can minimize some of these great players on the outside. … The one thing we used to praise in football was physicality; we no longer praise that. And so now when the offense says, 'Oh, you've got this guy and he can run sideline to sideline, let's see if he wants to get punched in the mouth.'"
Orlovsky added: "Defenses have way more answers for coverage, for the passing game. We see the middle game open, we see match coverage. Teams play so much nickel defense right now, like 65 percent of the league lives in nickel when it comes to snaps. And the nickels that came into the NFL, their No. 1 goal or ability is coverage. … I want to get you into defense as a nickel because I'll run right at you, because I know you can win one rep, but I want to see if you can play 35 run snaps as a nickel back since you want to live in that."
ESPN's Mina Kimes noted that the proliferation of mobile quarterbacks such as Jackson have been a contributing factor in rushing numbers going up, but they're not the sole reason, as runs only by running backs are up on early downs.
"What has changed dramatically, but I think is a pretty big factor, is the types of runs we're seeing on early downs," Kimes said. "League-wide so far this season, outside-zone, inside-zone are down, gap runs are up. And not only are they up, they are way more productive on early downs."
As to whether a run-heavy team, specifically the Ravens, can make a deep postseason run, Russell Street Report’s Darin McCann believes the answer is yes.
"This Ravens team absolutely can succeed in the playoffs this year with their style of play. But so can the Chiefs, Bills, Dolphins, Eagles and any other formidable outfit," McCann wrote. "It's going to come down to who is the most efficient with the possessions they have. And, who can force the other team to be less efficient."
Obviously, until the Ravens make a postseason run, they haven't done it, but just because they haven't done it doesn't mean they can't. Everything gets magnified in the postseason, but the sample size is small and there are reasons why the Ravens are 1-3 in the playoffs in the Jackson era that have nothing to do with their offensive approach.
Bears Are 'Stealing From the Best*'* in Using Ravens' Designed Run Plays for Justin Fields
One of the teams following the Ravens' offensive blueprint is the Chicago Bears, whose offense has thrived over the past month since unleashing quarterback Justin Fields as a runner.
"Let's give the Bears' coaches some credit for finally figuring out what they should have figured out weeks ago, and what former Head Coach Matt Nagy never did: You can build your offense to a point around Justin Fields as a run threat, just as … the Ravens have certainly done with Jackson," Touchdown Wire’s Doug Farrar wrote.
"If you don't have a plan, steal from the best! Apparently, one of the parts of the plan that [Bears Offensive Coordinator Luke] Getsy and his staff put together was based on the aforementioned Mr. Jackson, and the success he's had as a runner through his career in the concepts designed by Offensive Coordinator Greg Roman."
After the Bears significantly increased the number of designed runs for Fields in their 33-14 win over the New England Patriots in Week 7, the second-year quarterback said: "It just brings another whole element to our offense, stealing some plays from the Ravens."
Fields has rushed for 555 yards and five touchdowns over his past five games, including 178 yards against the Miami Dolphins in Week 9 that set a record for most rushing yards in an NFL regular-season game by a quarterback. He is on pace to rush for 1,273 yards, which would break Jackson's single-season record for rushing yards by a quarterback, which he set in 2019 with 1,206 yards in 15 games.
Fields has been so prolific running the ball that NFL.com analyst Maurice Jones-Drew declared that he has surpassed Jackson as "the most electric runner in the NFL."
When Ravens inside linebacker Roquan Smith, who played with Fields in Chicago, was asked to compare the two quarterbacks during his appearance on the “Keyshawm JWill & Max”[add] podcast last week, he said: "I have a great deal of respect for Justin. Played with him since his rookie year, see the guy growing each and every week, so I'm very excited for him the way he's been playing the last couple weeks.
"But Lamar, man, there's a reason that guy was the MVP. I used to watch the guy from afar even in college. Some of the things he does you just don't see day to day. So I'm excited to be his teammate. I think the sky's the limit for us and I think he can be the one to lead us to the Super Bowl this year."
Roquan Smith Says Ravens Defense Has the Talent to Return to Its Glory Days
Speaking of Smith, he appeared on "Good Morning Football" yesterday and was asked whether this season's Ravens defense has the potential to return to the glory days of Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, and Terrell Suggs.
"Absolutely," Smith said. "I have a great deal of respect for those guys – Sizzle, Ray, Ed – all those guys that played back in the day, but I'm very excited about this group and I think there's a lot of great things in store, because I don't really see any weaknesses, from the secondary, to the linebackers – two of the fastest on the league – as well as the D-linemen keeping them big boys off of us and eating up double-teams. So I'm looking forward to it and I think there's going to be so many great things in store. I think we're just getting started and we're bonding together."