On the Ravens’ first play from scrimmage Sunday against the Arizona Cardinals, offensive coordinator Todd Monken called a screen pass. It did not go well. They rarely have this year.
Tight end Isaiah Likely was flagged for offensive pass interference, wiping out running back Justice Hill’s 3-yard gain. The Ravens’ next four screens didn’t fare much better, yielding a combined 4 yards. The most successful screen of their 31-24 win, a 14-yarder on third-and-long late in the third quarter, wasn’t even a successful play, technically; Hill was stopped 4 yards short of the line to gain.
Of all the small ways Monken has changed the Ravens in his first year as play-caller, among the most surprising might not be the degree to which his offense has embraced screens but, rather, how ineffective they’ve been. Sunday was another low point: Quarterback Lamar Jackson went 5-for-5 for just 18 yards, and with Likely’s penalty tacked on, the offense lost 5.57 expected points in production on its six screens, according to the NFL’s Next Gen Stats — nearly a touchdown’s worth.
That was not the expectation in Baltimore. Last year, in Monken’s final season at Georgia, star quarterback Stetson Bennett averaged a solid 5.9 yards and 0.05 expected points added per screen attempt, according to Sports Info Solutions. Few college quarterbacks finished the season with more screen passes.
Monken’s willingness to target running backs, wide receivers and even tight ends on quick hitters, combined with the Ravens’ dynamic skill position talent and athletic offensive linemen, seemed like an ideal union last offseason. Under former coordinator Greg Roman, Jackson never finished a season higher than 28th leaguewide in attempted screens, according to Pro Football Focus. Players were eager for change.
“Obviously, you look at our division, right, and we have top rushers in Myles Garrett, T.J. Watt, and you have to find ways to [consider] … ‘How can I slow them up a little bit?’” right tackle Morgan Moses said before training camp. “Spreading the ball out and getting your athletes out in space and letting them do their thing is also a beautiful thing, too. …
“Just getting out in space and just having fun with it, right, because nobody wants to sit there and just hand the ball off in straight drop-backs all the time; you’ve got to have some gimmicks to get the guys open and out in space, and that’s how you just get the ball. Those are cheap, easy yards, we call it. So anytime you can get the ball out in space and get 20, 15 yards — whatever the case is — it’s all about moving the sticks forward.”
Ahead of Sunday’s showdown against the NFC West-leading Seattle Seahawks, however, the Ravens’ screen game is full of holes. According to a review of passes Jackson’s thrown behind the line of scrimmage this season, he’s completed 31 of 33 screen attempts for just 117 yards (3.5 yards per attempt), with more negative plays (10) than gains of at least 10 yards (seven). Overall, Jackson’s averaging a dreary minus-0.52 expected points added per play on screens, according to NGS.
There is no easy fix. The Ravens’ issues on screen plays have been widespread: inaccurate throws and poor blocking, limited playmaking and suboptimal timing (for both the play calls and in their execution). Even some of their rare breakthroughs have ended in agony. Left tackle Ronnie Stanley hurt his knee on wide receiver Zay Flowers’ 17-yard gain in Week 1. Running back Kenyan Drake lost a fumble in Week 3 after a 24-yard catch-and-run. (Take away two lost fumbles by Drake and Hill, and the offense’s average efficiency on screens is still minus-0.27 EPA per play.)
With wide receiver Devin Duvernay playing sparingly on offense and running back J.K. Dobbins sidelined by a season-ending Achilles tendon tear, Flowers has become the Ravens’ go-to option on screens, earning over half of Jackson’s targets. But little has come easily. Flowers has 16 catches on 17 targets for just 61 yards, and the last screen he turned into a gain of at least 10 yards came in Week 2.
Monken and Jackson’s approach to feeding the first-round pick has been varied. It just hasn’t been very successful. On nine run-pass options, which give Jackson the power to throw out wide if the Ravens have a numerical advantage, Flowers is averaging 4 yards per catch.
On seven more traditional wide receiver screens, he’s averaging 3.4 yards per catch.
Even a two-on-two look for Flowers near the goal line in Week 2 against the Cincinnati Bengals, with tight end Mark Andrews leading the way, yielded just 1 yard.
Running back screens haven’t worked, either. Half of Hill’s eight catches have gone backward, while Edwards’ one catch went for minus-6 yards, tied for the most they’ve lost on a screen this season.
The Ravens don’t need a successful screen game to have a successful aerial attack. Jackson is an NFL Most Valuable Player front-runner, and the offense ranks 11th in passing efficiency, according to FTN’s DVOA rankings. But if their struggles continue, a recalibration could be required. According to PFF, only four quarterbacks have attempted more screens this season than Jackson, a frequency that never seemed too problematic — until Sunday.
“It’s never a perfect formula,” coach John Harbaugh said Monday of the Ravens’ play-calling. “Things happen, and you just try to navigate your way through it as a play-caller and as the guys make the offensive adjustments in there.”
Mind the gaps
Over the season’s first seven weeks, the Ravens’ run defense was not great, but it was good enough. Big gains were rare. So, too, were medium gains. According to TruMedia, the Ravens entered Sunday having given up just 48 carries of at least 5 yards. Only four defenses had allowed fewer.
The Cardinals were undeterred. They kept running and running and running on the Ravens. Big gains were again rare — Arizona didn’t have a run longer than 14 yards — but medium gains piled up like sand in the desert. The Ravens allowed 17 carries of at least 5 yards Sunday, nearly double the total in their second-worst performance of the season, when they allowed nine such runs in a Week 5 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers.
With the Ravens starting most plays in a two-high structure, safeties Geno Stone and Kyle Hamilton aligned in deep halves of the field, Arizona repeatedly tested the integrity of coordinator Mike Macdonald’s lighter boxes. All it took was one mistake, one important block, one play-calling wrinkle for the defense to find itself out of position.
The Cardinals even punished the Ravens when they won up front. In the first quarter, rookie running back Emari Demercado gained 13 yards after defensive lineman Travis Jones breached Arizona’s line, only to overpursue and leave his gap uncovered.
On a 7-yard gain by Demercado in the second quarter, inside linebacker Patrick Queen and outside linebaker Kyle Van Noy were neutralized by the left-to-right movement of tight end Elijah Higgins at the snap, a split-zone look that gave the Ravens trouble throughout the day.
Sometimes the Ravens were just unlucky. Demercado’s first notable carry Sunday came at the expense of defensive lineman Broderick Washington, who tripped after a nearby tight end accidentally stepped on his foot. Later, in the third quarter, Van Noy appeared to be blocked in the back on a 6-yard gain by wide receiver Rondale Moore, but no flag was thrown.
“Outside of the [Indianapolis] Colts [game], that was probably our worst performance,” defensive lineman Michael Pierce said after the Ravens gave up 129 yards (4.0 per carry). “We gave up a long run in Cleveland, too, that pushed them right over 100 [yards]. Like I said, we pride ourselves on stopping the run. We’ve got a lot of stuff to clean up in that area, especially the first-half tape. So before Seattle comes, we have some work to do, but I’m glad we made some strides in the second half, for sure.”