At the bye week, Todd Monken wanted to take stock of the Ravens’ offense: What was their identity? What did they have and what were they missing? What was next?
“It will be good,” the first-year coordinator said last week. “It’ll be good for us.”
Of course, Monken’s in charge in part because his predecessor’s last bye week was not, in fact, good for the Ravens. Over the first nine weeks of last season, Greg Roman’s offense was, by some metrics, a top-10 unit. After the Ravens returned from their bye, over the final three games that quarterback Lamar Jackson started, they were a bottom-10 offense. And it only got worse from there.
With a humming ground game, a more refined passing attack and a healthy Jackson back at quarterback, expectations for the Ravens’ offense have changed. But the pressure to perform hasn’t, not with home-field advantage up for grabs in the AFC.
As Monken and the Ravens look to build on a strong but occasionally spotty first 12 games, here’s where they could look to elevate their offense.
The bad news for the Ravens’ passing game is that Jackson’s downfield accuracy remains below average. He ranks 28th in completion percentage (27.5%) among the 31 quarterbacks with at least 20 deep passes (20-plus air yards), according to TruMedia.
The good news: Jackson isn’t overly reliant on them. With his 40 attempts, Jackson ranks 12th in deep-passing rate (12%) among the 28 quarterbacks with at least 200 pass attempts this season.
Still, if the Ravens want to help themselves, they’ll need a downfield strike every once in a while. Without the threat of home run shots, opponents can defend Jackson more aggressively, moving their safeties closer to the line of scrimmage in run support and blitzing more regularly. According to TruMedia, Jackson has faced “Cover 1″ defenses — man-to-man coverage, typically with a middle-of-the-field safety and sometimes with five pass rushers — on 27% of his drop-backs this season, a career high and the third-highest rate in the NFL among qualifying passers.
Those game plans have led to opportunities for Ravens wide receivers. Jackson has targeted Rashod Bateman, for instance, eight times on passes of at least 20 air yards this season, but they’ve connected just once. The breakdowns have varied: On one, Bateman struggled to separate and was overthrown. On another, he failed to track a pass as it neared the catch point. One well-thrown pass was deflected by a leaping cornerback. Another long ball was underthrown and intercepted. Three others were overthrown.
The Ravens’ best hope for a breakthrough deep threat might be rookie wide receiver Zay Flowers, who flourished in that role in college. According to the NFL’s Next Gen Stats, the first-round pick leads the Ravens not only in deep routes run (62), deep-pass targets (13) and deep-pass catches (five) but also separation downfield. On average, he’s 2.9 yards from the nearest defender when the ball is released and 1.9 yards from the nearest defender when the pass arrives, both team-high marks that rank near the league average for wide receivers.
“We’re always trying to look for opportunities for him and some of our other players to get the ball down the field,”
said of Flowers last week. “Sometimes, it didn’t present itself. The other night [against the Los Angeles Chargers], he was certainly in some of those pockets. Some of the plays we may have checked the ball down, we were trying to get him down the field.
“He’s a guy you’re trying to get the ball to in a number of ways. Where there is space, that’s good for him. … To me, the biggest thing is, how do you get him the ball in space? It’s not even so much down the field as: Where can you get him where he’s hard to bring down? He can turn a short pass into an explosive, and so those are the things that we’re constantly trying to work through, as with all of our skill players.”
Keaton Mitchell vs. light boxes
The Ravens have the fourth-most designed runs in the NFL this season, according to TruMedia. They have the third-highest run rate on early downs. And still, the Ravens should probably be running more. Especially when defenses are inviting them to.
When the Ravens line up in 11 personnel (one back, one tight end and three wide receivers), their most common grouping this season, they often spread defenses out. On their 351 plays in 11 personnel, they’ve faced a “light box” — six or fewer defenders aligned between the tackles near the line of scrimmage — 272 times (77.5%).
When the Ravens run the ball into those light boxes, good things usually happen. On their 49 designed carries out of 11 personnel this season, they’ve averaged 7.2 yards per carry — only San Francisco has fared better (9.7) — and an NFL-best 0.24 expected points added per play. (The 49ers, the NFL’s most efficient offense, are averaging 0.14 EPA per play overall this season.)
Rookie Keaton Mitchell’s emergence has made the Ravens especially dynamic in space. On just 29 carries this season, the jet-quick running back has five gains of at least 20 yards. All but one of those explosive runs came in 11 personnel and against a light box, according to TruMedia.
“As he gets more and more comfortable, we get more and more comfortable with him and certain personnel groupings when we get him in there,” Monken said last week. “He’s certainly going to only continue to get better with reps, especially … in terms of the pass protections, some of the detail things. Handing the ball off to him is probably the least of that.”
The challenge for the Ravens is optimizing running back Gus Edwards’ skill set as effectively. Over a relatively small 10-carry sample size this season, Edwards has just 11 yards (1.1 per carry) against light boxes in 11 personnel. His rushing average is actually higher (3 yards per carry) against heavier boxes.
Isaiah Likely in space
Tight ends Isaiah Likely and Mark Andrews are “a little bit different,” coach John Harbaugh said last week. With Andrews sidelined, so is the Ravens’ offense.
Andrews has always been more of a vertical threat. Over the past two seasons, his average depth of target is 9.2 yards, according to the NFL’s Next Gen Stats, one of the highest rates for a tight end in the NFL. Few receivers have been more productive on the deep crosses that Andrews has run over and over again during his six years in Baltimore.
Likely, meanwhile, is more elusive, more creative in space, more of an east-west runner than north-south. In the Ravens’ first game without Andrews, their 20-10 win over the Chargers, Likely was targeted six times. (A seventh target was negated by a penalty.) He got more looks on passes behind the line of scrimmage (two) than he did on passes thrown at least 3 yards downfield (one).
Chip-and-release plays that created another layer of pass protection for Jackson and more space underneath for Likely were especially effective. His disallowed 14-yard catch came after he blocked defensive end Tuli Tuipulotu and then ran a shallow cross. An 18-yard catch-and-run came on a screen where Likely briefly stayed in to block defensive end Khalil Mack. He had a 7-yard catch on another delayed release into the flat.
“He probably has a little more twitch” than Andrews, Monken said of Likely last week. “He probably has a little bit, as he develops as a player, to break tackles. He can get to an edge a little bit more than Mark. … As he keeps developing his craft and his depths [on his routes] and setting up defenders, he’s going to be hard to handle. It’s just a matter of time.”
Likely’s ability in space also creates conflicts in the run game. In the win over the Chargers, running back Justice Hill rushed for 18 yards on a split-zone concept, in which a blocker motions across the line of scrimmage at the snap, against the flow of the zone-blocking scheme, forcing the back-side edge defender to respect the possibility of a play-action pass or quarterback keeper. Likely’s movement and Jackson’s run fake froze Mack long enough to open a sizable cut-back hole for Hill.
The Ravens have largely featured fullback Patrick Ricard on split-zone concepts this season. With Likely in his place, the Ravens sacrifice some blocking ability for more optionality.
“I just know that we’re lucky to have Isaiah, and he did a good job the other night,” Monken said last week. “He’s going to continue to grow as a player. We’ve just got to continue to figure out how we’re going to use the other pieces that we do have.”
Jackson has attempted 30 passes this season on run-pass options, plays in which a pass option is built into a running concept, allowing the quarterback to read and react to the defense’s alignment. That’s already three more RPOs than Jackson’s previous career high, according to Sports Info Solutions, which he set in 2021. His production so far has been modest: 22-for-30 for 99 yards, with two sacks taken. His 43.8% success rate would be a career low.
But over the Ravens’ past two games, there have been flashes of potential. Jackson has been especially dangerous when he’s thrown into cornerback blitzes. On one such play in Week 11, Andrews was wide open for a 9-yard catch-and-run in the red zone, only to hurt his ankle on Cincinnati Bengals inside linebacker Logan Wilson’s hip-drop tackle.
Jackson’s next RPO pass produced another short-lived highlight. In the second quarter, another Bengals cornerback blitzed Jackson, leaving Flowers with a two-on-one advantage out wide. Flowers caught Jackson’s pass in the flat and weaved his way to a 68-yard touchdown, only to have the play called back because of a questionable holding call on wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr.
A week later, against the Chargers, Jackson went 3-for-5 for 15 yards on RPOs, but the offense was unfortunate to not finish with better numbers. Jackson threw just behind Beckham on one incompletion, had another screen to Flowers blown up before the pass even reached the rookie, and perhaps erred in his decision to pull the ball and find Flowers on a play that lost 5 yards.
There will be plenty more RPOs in the coming weeks. The Ravens’ running game puts opponents in a bind; defenses can cover only so much ground. If there are opportunities for easy completions off run fakes or against heavy boxes, Monken has empowered Jackson to seek them out.