The best feature of the Ravens’ most efficient personnel grouping last season wasn’t its balance or its flexibility. It was how strong a two-tight-end offense could be without its top two tight ends at full strength.

In 12 personnel (one running back, two tight ends and two wide receivers), the Ravens scored a touchdown or reached a first down on 31% of their offensive snaps, which would’ve ranked fifth overall among NFL offenses. They had a negative play — rushing losses, sacks, fumbles and interceptions — on just 5% of their snaps, which would’ve led the league. Their typical drop-back with two tight ends was, on balance, one of the most effective plays in football.

And yet the Ravens’ excellence seemed almost unplanned. Mark Andrews, a three-time Pro Bowl pick, missed almost half the season because of injuries. Isaiah Likely, his ascendant running mate, didn’t hit his stride until Andrews was sidelined. The hopes for a dynamic partnership in 2024 rest largely on a 2023 sample that was stellar but quite small.

“It’s going to be special,” Andrews said in May of the Ravens’ potential with him and Likely playing together. “When you have two guys that are dynamic, mismatches all over the field, it doesn’t matter where you put us. That’s tough to game-plan for. [We’re] both guys that love to play ball, love to compete, and it’s going to be fun. Really, our whole tight end room is special right now, and I’m excited about that.”

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As training camp approaches, the prospect of an Andrews-and-Likely-heavy offense has become a subject of fascination in Baltimore. They were two of quarterback Lamar Jackson’s favorite targets this spring. The Ravens’ wide receivers are a question mark. Offensive coordinator Todd Monken’s 12 personnel sets at Georgia propelled one of college football’s most powerful attacks. What’s stopping a Ravens recreation?

Here are five takeaways from what Jackson, Andrews and Likely did together last season, and how it could work — or not — in 2024. (Unless otherwise noted, all data comes from TruMedia and excludes kneel-downs.)

Baltimore Ravens tight end Mark Andrews (89) runs onto the field ahead of the AFC championship game against the Kansas City Chiefs. (Kylie Cooper/The Baltimore Banner)

1. The Ravens didn’t play Andrews and Likely together very often

Andrews missed the Ravens’ season opener with a quadriceps injury. He missed their final six regular-season games with a leg and ankle injury suffered early in Week 11. That left a nine-game stretch, from Week 2 to Week 10, in which the Ravens had both Andrews and Likely available.

Even then, Monken tended to keep them separated. Of the Ravens’ 568 offensive plays from Week 2 to Week 10, Andrews and Likely played together just 81 times (14.3%), or nine snaps per game. Overall, the team’s rate of 12 personnel was one of the NFL’s lowest in that stretch; 24 offenses relied more on the grouping more often than the Ravens’ (13.6%).

Monken’s embrace of three-receiver sets was a primary driver behind their limited usage. The Ravens lined up in 11 personnel (one running back, one tight end and three wide receivers), the league’s most popular grouping, on nearly half of their plays for the season (47.8%, their highest rate since 2020) and in 20 personnel (two backs, no tight ends and three wide receivers) on an NFL-high 9.4% of their plays. No other offense used 20 personnel even 2% of the time.

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Even when the Ravens had both Andrews and Likely available, they didn’t feature in Monken’s preferred “heavy” grouping. That was 21 personnel (two backs, one tight end and two wide receivers), an efficient and Patrick Ricard-reliant package that the Ravens used on 21.8% of their plays from Week 2 to Week 10, the NFL’s fifth-highest rate in that span.

2. Their passing attack was efficient and different

Jackson’s 36 drop-backs in 12 personnel with Andrews and Likely last season were as efficient as they were distinct.

Jackson went 23-for-29 (79.3%) for 253 yards and one touchdown and averaged an uber-productive 0.50 expected points added per attempt. (The San Francisco 49ers’ Brock Purdy led the NFL last season with 0.29 EPA per attempt overall.) Rookie wide receiver Zay Flowers and Andrews earned the majority of Jackson’s targets, finishing with five catches for 87 yards and eight catches for 86 yards, respectively. Likely had 35 yards, while wide receivers Odell Beckham Jr. and Rashod Bateman combined for 36 yards.

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Even more impressive, three of Jackson’s passes were dropped, according to Pro Football Focus, including a 21-yard throw to Flowers early in the Ravens’ sloppy road loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers. His off-target percentage with Andrews and Likely was pristine (3.4%), dramatically better than his overall off-target rate (12%, 29th among 48 qualifying quarterbacks).

In his limited 12 personnel snaps, Jackson was generally a more conservative, quicker-to-the-trigger passer. He averaged 7.6 air yards per attempt, below the league average in the grouping and nearly a yard less than his overall average in 2023 (8.4 yards downfield). His average time to throw (2.43 seconds), meanwhile, would’ve been one of the NFL’s fastest overall last season and was close to a half-second faster than his career-best season-long average (2.83 seconds in 2021). Jackson finished with just one sack in the grouping and scrambled six times for 24 yards.

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With Andrews and Likely on the field in 12 personnel, Jackson seemed to abandon big-game hunting. Just three of his 29 passes were deep attempts, and none went beyond 27 air yards. Still, Jackson had three “explosive” pass plays (gains of at least 16 yards), and the Ravens’ 16.7% explosive-pass-play rate with the trio together was higher than the offense’s impressive season-long rate (15%, fifth highest in the NFL).

“The tight end position is growing and growing,” Andrews said. “These are guys that are some of the best athletes on the field, being big, tall, strong, able to go get passes. I love what we’re able to do.”

3. Their running game could’ve been better

The Ravens had a balanced offense with Andrews and Likely, with 50.7% of their plays resulting in a pass attempt, sack or scramble. Still, defenses played the grouping as if they were far more wary of the pass than the run.

Around the NFL, against offenses in 12 personnel, teams played in a nickel package (five defensive backs) 48.9% of the time last season. Against the Ravens’ looks with Andrews and Likely, opponents cranked that rate up to 70.4%, apparently feeling more secure with another cornerback or safety on the field than another linebacker. The pass-first defensive groupings weren’t even a reflection of obvious passing downs the Ravens found themselves in, either; on first and second down, defenses actually leaned on nickel looks at a higher rate (75%).

On the ground, the Ravens largely took advantage of those lighter looks. On their 35 total designed runs with Andrews and Likely in 12 personnel, the offense averaged 4.8 yards and 0.00 EPA per rush, a tick below its strong overall season-long averages (4.9 yards and 0.03 EPA per rush). It also had three explosive carries (gains of at least 12 yards), good for an 8.6% explosive-run rate, in line with its overall season-long mark (8.7%).

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Still, the Ravens have been better. Much better. Over the previous two seasons, a Jackson-led offense in 12 personnel had run the ball 30 times. In that (admittedly small) sample, it’d averaged a ridiculous 7.7 yards and 0.50 EPA per carry and posted an equally ridiculous success rate of 66.7%. (The league averages for 12 personnel runs over that span were 4.2 yards and minus-0.1 EPA per rush and a 37.4% success rate.)

What accounted for the drop-off? Several of the Ravens’ most explosive carries in 2021 and 2022 came on zone reads or designed quarterback runs, both of which Monken seemed to deemphasize last season. And neither Andrews nor Likely profiles as a prototypical in-line tight end, a blocking-heavy role in Baltimore that Nick Boyle, Josh Oliver and Eric Tomlinson had filled capably in previous years.

“You have to be able to keep the defense honest,” Andrews said in May. “You want to come on the field ... it’s not just, ‘They’re passing the ball.’ That’s something that I had to learn very early on in my career, is being able to put your hand down, get dirty. It just makes it tough on a defense to game-plan for, and every guy in our room is able to do that.”

4. Derrick Henry could change the calculus

Henry’s arrival in Baltimore creates a new tension for defensive coordinators: When the Ravens line up in 12 personnel, is it safer to have another defensive back who can run with Andrews and Likely, or another linebacker who can take on Henry?

If the Ravens get more servings of the kinds of fronts they faced last year, Henry could feast. Nearly half of those 35 designed runs in 12 personnel were against light boxes (six defenders or fewer), with defenses either unwilling to drop a safety in the box, more concerned about the Ravens bouncing runs outside, or stretched by presnap alignments and motion.

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When Andrews and Likely were on the field for the team’s 17 runs against light boxes, the Ravens averaged a healthy 7.0 yards per carry. But they were prone to boom-bust tendencies, finishing with as many runs of at least 10 yards as they did runs of 2 yards or fewer (six). Their EPA per carry was 0.06, and their success rate was 41.2% — solid, if unspectacular, marks.

Henry is largely unaccustomed to such forgiving looks. Over his Tennessee Titans career, he regularly faced some of the league’s highest rates of heavy boxes (at least eight defenders) and some of the lowest rates of light boxes. The last thing opposing defenses wanted to give Henry was a chance to build up steam as he climbed to the second level.

Just ask the Ravens. Henry’s longest run against a light box last season came against their defense in London, where he took a direct snap, wasn’t touched as he crossed the line of scrimmage and broke into a 63-yard sprint.

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5. Growth is still necessary

Monken did not shy away from 12 personnel last season out of ignorance. And the same schematic considerations that likely pushed him elsewhere in 2023 could have similar resonance in 2024.

With three-receiver sets, the Ravens could get more speed and carve out more space on the field for Jackson. In 20 and 21 personnel looks, Ricard, the best blocker in the Ravens’ tight end room, could almost compel defenses to line up in base personnel (four defensive backs). And by splitting up Andrews and Likely, the Ravens could save their legs over the course of long games and a long season.

Offensive coordinator Todd Monken checks his play sheet during the Baltimore Ravens’ organized team activities on June 6. (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Banner)

For as dynamic as the duo is, not every scheme offers a seamless fit. San Francisco 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan can torment defenses in 21 personnel in large part because of the blocking ability of tight end George Kittle and fullback Kyle Juszczyk. At Georgia, Monken paired star Brock Bowers with Darnell Washington, one of the country’s best blocking tight ends. Andrews has developed into a solid blocker, and Likely has improved since an uneven start, but neither would be entrusted to function regularly as a sixth offensive lineman. That’s Ricard’s role, and potentially Charlie Kolar’s.

Likely and Andrews are more often found lining up in the slot or as “move” tight ends, set off from the line of scrimmage. But there is no denying their versatility. Andrews can line up anywhere and win as a receiver. Likely can come up with jump balls and turn short gains into long catch-and-runs. He said in May that he was “finding my way in the offense as a chess piece, just seeing where I can fit in.”

That’s the challenge this offseason for Monken, too, as he considers his offense’s next move.

“Everything was going back to the drawing board to say who we want to be moving forward offensively,” Monken said in May. “Certainly, with the way Isaiah Likely came on and having Mark, Pat Ricard, the wideouts we have, we do have tremendous skills. So how do we utilize each player and their elite skill set? What is that? How can we utilize that? So that has been a big part of the offseason with those guys and how do we get them — when and how — on the field that allows us to be very consistent on offense and score touchdowns. That’s it, really.”