Within a minute Sunday, it was clear the Detroit Lions didn’t know what they were up against.
On the Ravens’ second play from scrimmage inside M&T Bank Stadium, offensive coordinator Todd Monken called for a read-option. As quarterback Lamar Jackson waited for running back Justice Hill to approach the mesh point, Lions defensive end Aidan Hutchinson reflexively bolted into the backfield. When Jackson kept the ball and headed for open space, Detroit looked like it was expecting that, too. Inside linebacker Alex Anzalone had shifted over after the snap, replacing Hutchinson as the edge-setting defender, ready to chase Jackson down if necessary.
What the Lions probably did not expect was a pass. This was not a read-option but, rather, a run-pass option, and a unique one, at that. According to Sports Info Solutions, the Ravens had attempted 10 passes out of RPOs over their first six games. This one would be the first with Jackson throwing on the move.
With rookie Zay Flowers occupying Lions defenders near the sideline closest to Jackson, fellow wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. settled comfortably into an open patch of grass about 5 yards downfield. Jackson found him easily for an 11-yard gain. The Ravens had their first of 23 first downs in a 38-6 blowout win.
It was only fitting that subversion and misdirection powered one of the Ravens’ most unexpectedly dominant games in recent memory. When Monken wasn’t flummoxing a stout Lions defense with unexpected play designs, Jackson was improvising moments of out-of-structure brilliance.
“We just wanted to focus on ourselves and play to our potential,” left tackle Ronnie Stanley said Sunday. “We knew we were playing a good team, but I think when we put the focus on ourselves and play to our potential, we’re an elite offense, and I think we showed it today.”
Jackson has seen every type of look imaginable over his five-plus years as a starter. Almost nothing seems to surprise him. That doesn’t mean that he can’t surprise defenses, though. Monken’s game plan Sunday was full of curveballs:
- On the Ravens’ opening drive, Jackson all but walked in on his 7-yard touchdown run. Detroit seemed to overlook the possibility that Jackson could fake his fourth-and-1 handoff to running back Gus Edwards and keep it for himself. It was an understandable lapse in judgment, though: Jackson had rushed just one time on an under-center play this season entering Sunday, according to SIS, and that was on a quarterback sneak. A bootleg was not on the menu.
- On the Ravens’ fourth possession, they started running over Detroit’s defense. So on first-and-10 from the Lions’ 24, the offense lined up with the kind of personnel that suggested another carry was coming: two backs, two tight ends and just one wide receiver. But after Jackson started to follow a convoy of blockers on an apparent designed quarterback run, he pulled up and looked for tight end Mark Andrews downfield. He’d leaked out after pretending to block and was wide open for a 22-yard catch.
- Two plays later, the Ravens caught Detroit off guard not only with their play call but also their pace. According to the NFL’s Next Gen Stats, the Ravens took only four seconds to get from their huddle to their snap. And when the ball was snapped, the Lions were not prepared. Andrews was lined up where left tackle Stanley was normally positioned, while Stanley was lined up between tight end Isaiah Likely and Flowers. That size advantage served Edwards well, who took a pitch from Jackson and wasn’t touched until he’d broken the plane for a 2-yard score.
“The schemes were great,” coach John Harbaugh said Sunday. “I felt like they did a great job, and Todd deserves credit.”
The Ravens relied on more than just schemes for big plays, though. At times Sunday, the offense’s best course of action was to just let Jackson turn nothing into something:
- On the Ravens’ second touchdown, Jackson seemed to miss Flowers coming open over the middle for a would-be 12-yard score. No matter. He’d spent about three seconds reviewing his options, and he’d soon wriggle free for another six seconds of field surveying. By the time Jackson found wide receiver Nelson Agholor in the middle of the end zone, he was surrounded by three Lions pass rushers.
- The Ravens’ longest play also seemed to come from an inspired bit of improv. On their fifth touchdown drive, Jackson faked a handoff to Edwards and drifted to his left, where Andrews and Flowers were running layered crossing routes. One problem: Inside linebacker Jack Campbell was blitzing off the left side of the line, leaving Jackson with no other recourse but to head to his right, essentially following Edwards, a rarity for a play-action play. As Edwards strolled to the second level, he somehow intuited — or maybe Jackson let him know — that he was the Ravens’ best hope for a completion. Jackson tossed him a short pass, and Edwards was off to the races for an 80-yard catch-and-run.
“That’s just Lamar,” Harbaugh said Monday. “Being Lamar, it’s just some of his innate talents. How he sees the game is pretty special.”