It was not hard Sunday to imagine what a fully functional Ravens offense might look like. In their first two drives of the second half, they needed less than six minutes to score two touchdowns. They averaged 7.4 yards per play. They faced only two third downs. Quarterback Lamar Jackson targeted his top wide receivers for big plays. Running back Justice Hill found the end zone twice.
“Those drives in the third quarter, we came out and smoked them,” Hill said after the Ravens’ season-opening 25-9 win over the Houston Texans. “That’s what we need to continue to do.”
But if there were a possession that epitomized the Ravens’ Week 1 performance, it might’ve been their last of the first half. It was a dysfunctional drive, strewn with the potholes and speed bumps that made the offense’s first game under coordinator Todd Monken such a bumpy ride.
The Ravens had taken over at their 25-yard line with 3:56 remaining in the second quarter, leading 7-6. Their next five plays showed just how far their offense had to go.
- First-and-10: Running back J.K. Dobbins followed a big hole on an inside-zone run, only to trip and finish with just 4 yards.
- Second-and-6: Jackson had to twice avoid Texans rookie defensive end Will Anderson Jr., the No. 3 overall pick, before scrambling for a 14-yard gain. After the play, right guard Kevin Zeitler had some words for right tackle Morgan Moses over an apparent miscommunication on the stunt that freed Anderson for his would-be sack.
- First-and-10: Jackson had wide receiver Rashod Bateman, tight end Isaiah Likely and Dobbins open for check-downs in space, but he was slow to trigger. He scrambled forward into Houston defensive lineman Maliek Collins, whose stumbling collision disrupted Jackson’s pass to Dobbins over the middle.
- Second-and-10: Jackson motioned Dobbins over from the shotgun to the left flat, where the Ravens, with a numerical advantage out wide, were setting up for a screen. But after glancing at Dobbins, Jackson tucked the ball and ran for a 1-yard gain.
- Third-and-9: The Texans lined up in a “Cover 0″ presnap look, with seven defenders along the line of scrimmage threatening to blitz and four defensive backs guarding the first-down marker. Jackson took the snap and looked quickly over to Odell Beckham Jr., but his route was still developing. Jackson double-clutched and absorbed a hit before throwing well short of Beckham.
“Rusty As [cursing-face emoji],” Jackson posted on X, formerly known as Twitter, after the game. The Ravens finished with just 265 yards of total offense, two turnovers and six offensive penalties.
“Lots of little things, even communication, just the way we were operating, it was up and down,” coach John Harbaugh said at his weekly news conference Monday. “It was a little spotty. We had some really good moments — many good moments, but you’re also admitting not-good moments.
“And [it’s things like] just being on the same page, where we were lined up, timing up motions, getting out of the huddle as quickly as you wanted to at times, route running, blocking, schemes, which linebacker we were working towards. There’s just a myriad of things that go into playing a football game. … It’s a lot of moving parts. We have to get the parts moving more in sync, and it’s early in the season. It’s not unexpected, but I promise you, we want to be chasing perfection.”
The Ravens’ third quarter provided enough good moments for a Week 1 win. It was the not-good moments that stymied the rest of Monken’s debut.
Monken’s arrival changed more than the look of the Ravens’ passing game. It also changed the looks they’d get in their running game.
More spread formations would mean more light boxes. More light boxes would mean fewer congested running lanes. And fewer congested running lanes would mean more production from Jackson. Over the past four seasons, with Jackson on the field, the Ravens had averaged a remarkable 6.6 yards per carry and 0.12 expected points added per rush against six or fewer defenders in the box, according to TruMedia.
On Sunday, the Ravens lined up with three wide receivers on 40 of their 58 plays. Houston responded with light boxes. The Ravens just couldn’t do much with them. Excluding scrambles, their ground game finished with 11 carries for 41 yards (3.7 per carry).
On designed runs, Jackson was a nonfactor. He led the team with six carries for 38 yards, but five of those were scrambles, and the other was a quarterback sneak. Harbaugh said Monday that Jackson was involved in several option play calls, and that his diagnosis of the Texans’ defense led him to either hand the ball off to a running back or throw it to a wide receiver.
But there was at least one missed opportunity for Jackson. Early in the fourth quarter, he’d handed the ball off to Hill on a read-option that was stopped for no gain by defensive end Jonathan Greenard. Fullback Patrick Ricard, who on some plays is entrusted to read out the defense as Jackson might, had left Greenard unblocked, moving past him to block the second-level defender instead, as if he thought Jackson would pull the ball and follow him.
“That [running ability] is an element of his game that defenses are going to have to account for, for sure, every week,” Harbaugh said of Jackson. “They’re going to have to account for him both out of the pocket, extending plays and also with the QB-driven plays, and we have a myriad of those plays.”
Overall, the Ravens finished with 32 carries for 110 yards (3.4 per carry), 16 yards below their expected total, according to the NFL’s Next Gen Stats. Their 32.1% success rate, which measures the efficiency of run plays depending on their down and distance, ranked No. 45 among the 55 games Jackson has started since 2019. Amazingly, the Ravens have won eight of the 10 games with worse success rates than Sunday’s.
Upping the tempo
How much faster did Monken’s Ravens offense move Sunday? Not much faster. Only about as long as it takes to read this paragraph.
According to analytics website FTN, the Ravens averaged 29.5 seconds per offensive play over the first three quarters of games last season, ranking them 25th in the NFL. Over the first three quarters Sunday, they averaged 27.4 seconds per offensive play, the 18th-fastest pace in Week 1.
The Ravens avoided delay-of-game penalties, a recurring problem under former coordinator Greg Roman, but there were still clock management issues. Running back Gus Edwards was flagged for illegal motion in the first half after a last-second formational tweak forced him to move from a pistol formation to a shotgun formation as the ball was being snapped. And in the fourth quarter, Jackson threw a quick hitter to wide receiver Zay Flowers after taking the snap just before the play clock expired. The play was disjointed from the start, and Flowers lost 3 yards.
Outside linebacker Odafe Oweh has had more memorable home openers than Sunday. As a rookie in 2021, the first-round pick forced and recovered a fumble that kept the Ravens’ comeback hopes alive in an eventual Week 2 win over the Kansas City Chiefs.
But a more complete home opener? How about a more complete game in his entire Ravens career? It’d be hard to find. Oweh led all Ravens outside linebackers with 49 defensive snaps and finished with a career-high seven quarterback pressures and four quarterback hits, according to Pro Football Focus, along with two run stops. He didn’t have a sack, but his impact on the game was immense. Here’s 10 plays you might’ve missed:
- First quarter, 1:15 left: Oweh jolted quarterback C.J. Stroud with a hit on a play-action drop-back, leading to an incompletion on second-and-7.
- Second quarter, 10:24 left: In a funky third-and-5 alignment, edge rushers David Ojabo and Oweh set up over the guards, while defensive linemen Justin Madubuike and Michael Pierce played on the edge. Oweh tracked Stroud down as he broke from the pocket, delivering a hit just after he completed a first-down pass.
- Second quarter, 7:33 left: Oweh showed a bit of razzle-dazzle as he spun by star left tackle Laremy Tunsil on an outside move. Stroud got rid of the ball before he could even get close, though.
- Second quarter, 1:48 left: On an outside-zone run, Oweh defeated the block of right tackle George Fant before circling back and combining with inside linebacker Roquan Smith for a tackle on running back Devin Singletary’s 2-yard gain.
- Third quarter, 15:00 left: Oweh all but clotheslined wide receiver Noah Brown as he cut against the grain on a split-zone play-action bootleg, taking away a check-down option and giving Madubuike the time he needed to get to Stroud for a sack.
- Third quarter, 14:13 left: After another busted split-zone bootleg, Oweh chased after Stroud and delivered another hit, helping to force an incompletion.
- Third quarter, 9:36 left: Oweh controlled a block from tight end Andrew Beck, setting the edge and compressing a gap at once. After Pierce missed a tackle, Oweh disengaged from Beck and dragged running back Dameon Pierce down for a 4-yard gain.
- Third quarter, 8:59 left: Oweh dipped and (nearly) ripped his way past Tunsil on a play-action drop-back. Madubuike drew a holding penalty as he combined with Oweh for the pressure on Stroud, but Tunsil could’ve been flagged as well.
- Third quarter, 4:24 left: On third-and-2, Oweh lined up over the center and took little time to swim past him. Stroud’s quick release kept Houston’s offense on the field and Oweh off his jersey.
- Fourth quarter, 4:10 left: Oweh easily dipped and ripped past emergency right tackle Josh Jones before combining with defensive lineman Broderick Washington for a hit on Stroud.
Odds and ends
- Madubuike might have never run faster in a game than on his third-quarter sack. He hit 17.84 mph on his straight-line sprint to Stroud, according to NGS, the fastest recorded time of his career. It was only the third time in his career he’d topped even 16 mph.
- Flowers forced four missed tackles on his nine catches, according to PFF, the most by an NFL wide receiver in Week 1. He averaged 5.9 yards after the catch per reception.
- Wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. acknowledged after his two-catch, 37-yard performance that “the competitor in me ... is not necessarily happy with my performance so much today.” But he didn’t show any hesitation in his run blocking. On Hill’s first rushing touchdown, Beckham’s crack block on safety M.J. Stewart helped seal off Hill’s path to the end zone.