Sunday, October 25, 2020

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Digging into struggles of Ravens offense so far in 2020

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Luke Jones
Luke Jones
Luke Jones is the Ravens and Orioles beat reporter for WNST BaltimorePositive.com and is a PFWA member. His mind is consumed with useless sports knowledge, pro wrestler promos, and movie quotes, but he struggles to remember where he put his phone. Luke's favorite sports memories include being one of the thousands of kids who waited to get Cal Ripken's autograph after Orioles games in the summer of 1995, attending the Super Bowl XXXV victory parade with his father in the pouring rain, and watching the Terps advance to the Final Four at the Carrier Dome in 2002. Follow him on Twitter @BaltimoreLuke or email him at Luke@wnst.net.

The Ravens remain a really good football team despite some of the local chatter you might hear suggesting otherwise.

They enter Week 6 with the NFL’s best point differential at plus-73 and with each of their four wins coming by 14 or more points. Football Outsiders’ DVOA metric ranks the Ravens as the most efficient team in the league while ESPN’s Football Power Index ranks them second behind only Kansas City.

The Week 3 loss to the Chiefs was a very bitter pill to swallow, of course, but an overwhelming argument remains for Baltimore as the second-best team in the league. The reasons why just aren’t what we anticipated after the Ravens broke a number of league and team records with the NFL’s best offense last season. So far in 2020, it’s been an elite defense allowing the fewest points per game in the league and excellent special teams leading the way.    

To be clear, the offense isn’t bad — we’ve seen what that looks like in these parts — but the blueprint and efficiency that so frequently embarrassed the opposition last season just hasn’t been there consistently.

“Everybody is a work in progress right now,” head coach John Harbaugh said last week. “You don’t just pick up where you leave off from one season to the next. We were a work in progress last year, and it took us a while to get going. Hopefully, we can do the kind of things that we did last year on offense, but we still want to improve in those things too.”

This is where we need to acknowledge how truly special the 2019 season was with a record-setting rushing attack and an MVP campaign for the ages turned in by Lamar Jackson. Upon looking at the best offenses of the last 15 years, the evidence was always there for some regression to the mean after the Ravens produced 58 offensive touchdowns and a league-record 3,296 rushing yards last season. Only two other quarterbacks this century – Aaron Rodgers in 2011 and Peyton Manning in 2004 – had thrown a touchdown pass on at least 9.0 percent of their pass attempts, making it extremely unlikely for Jackson to duplicate that level of efficiency.

Last year’s Ravens offense was a bit like Jamal Lewis rushing for 2,000 yards in that you couldn’t realistically project that to happen again. But that doesn’t mean offensive coordinator Greg Roman’s unit can’t once again be one of the NFL’s best if issues are addressed.

Replacing eight-time Pro Bowl right guard Marshal Yanda was always going to be a daunting challenge, but even the trade of tight end Hayden Hurst was made with the expectation of a No. 3 pass-catching option stepping up behind tight end Mark Andrews and wide receiver Marquise Brown. That hasn’t happened yet.

There’s also the reality of opponents having a full offseason to study the most unique offense in the league. More familiarity was always going to lead to opposing coaches developing best practices to at least slow down the Ravens and force them to make adjustments of their own. Jackson and other offensive players have acknowledged seeing different defensive looks during games than what they anticipated during the practice week.

The problems aren’t quite as simple as they might appear statistically, however.

With the Ravens once again leading the league at 5.6 yards per carry, many are understandably clamoring for more runs, a request that holds merit in some instances. But we also know it’s not as simple as being guaranteed five or six yards every time you run the ball on the way to touchdown after touchdown despite the Ravens making it look that way so often a year ago. 

Examining the running game through the lens of success rate paints a different picture than what the raw numbers suggest. If you’re unfamiliar with the metric, success rate offers more context by evaluating the outcome of a play according to the down and distance to go for a first down. Using SharpFootballStats.com’s definition, a play is “successful” when it gains at least 40 percent of yards to go on first down, 60 percent of yards to go on second down, and 100 percent of yards to go on third or fourth down.

For example, a 2-yard run on first-and-10 isn’t doing much for an offense, but that same gain on third-and-inches is exactly what you wanted, making that play more successful than the former. In contrast, a running back could gain 3 yards on each of the first six offensive plays of a game resulting in two three-and-outs for his team and then run for 17 yards on the seventh attempt. That player would be averaging an impressive 5.0 yards per carry at that point, but a team wouldn’t consider that a particularly great start running the ball after two punts and only one of those seven plays being “successful.”

Game situation always matters, which is the challenge of being a play caller in real time rather than just scrutinizing the final numbers after the game. Five games into this season, the Ravens’ 5.6 yards per carry average has been buoyed by nine runs of 20 or more yards and three runs of 40 or more yards. In contrast, the 2019 rushing attack had 23 runs of 20 or more yards and five rushes of 40 or more yards for the entire season, meaning it more consistently gained yardage on every play rather than needing those long runs.

Those big plays are a compelling reason why you don’t abandon the run, mind you, but depending on them too much will lead to some of the disjointed, choppy stretches of offense we’ve witnessed so far in 2020. 

The root of the problem has been first down despite Baltimore running the ball nearly as often on that down as last year (61 percent compared to 62 percent), according to SharpFootballStats.com. Unlike 2019 when the Ravens averaged 5.2 yards per carry and owned a 53-percent success rate that was second in the league, they’ve averaged just 3.7 yards per carry and have been successful on just 41 percent of their first-down runs this season, which ranks 27th in the NFL.

The first-down struggles have been even more pronounced in the opening quarter as the Ravens own a 38-percent success rate and a 2.6 yards per carry average compared to last season when they were successful on 64 percent of their first-down runs and averaged 6.4 yards per attempt in the first period. Baltimore has run on 66 percent of its first-down runs in the opening quarter compared to 67 percent last year, again illustrating Roman’s intent to run early in games.

That brings us to Jackson and a passing game facing criticism for ranking 31st in passing yards per game. Considering the Ravens ranked only 27th in that department last year, we’re reminded this passing game is much more about efficiency than volume, but Baltimore has also fallen to 22nd at 7.1 yards per passing attempt after ranking 12th in that department at 7.6 last year.

Faced with fewer second-and-short situations because of those underwhelming first-down runs, the Baltimore passing game has fallen off a cliff on second downs with a league-worst 30-percent success rate after ranking fourth at 51 percent last year. Jackson was at his best on second down last season by completing 71.1 percent of his passes, averaging 8.0 yards per attempt, and posting a 123.9 passer rating, but it’s been his worst passing down thus far in 2020 as he’s completed only 57.1 percent of passes, averaged 4.4 yards per pass attempt, and produced a 79.8 passer rating.

It would be easy to simply blame Jackson if not for the fact that he’s been even better passing on third down than he was a year ago. The Ravens also rank a more respectable 13th in passing success rate on third down at 40 percent, making you wonder if those immense second-down struggles reflect a bit of a blind spot from a play-calling standpoint with the offense more frequently caught in between after not enjoying the first-down yardage gained a year ago.

The Ravens showed us last year that the best offenses avoid third downs altogether after they faced the third fewest in the league despite leading all 32 teams in average time per drive and time of possession. And they did that with the running game keeping the offense on schedule and putting the passing attack in advantageous situations.

Through the lens of success rate, we’re seeing a Ravens offense that’s been very mediocre running the ball on first down and poor passing its way out of longer second-down situations, inevitably leading to more third downs and stalled drives than we saw last year. In fact, with Baltimore producing a 58-percent success rate on first-down passes (11th in the NFL) so far this season, one could argue to see more throws on first down to set up runs on second-and-short, particularly early in games. For what it’s worth, that strategy would be in step with what the football analytics community argues as optimal play calling.

Of course, these numbers from the first five games of 2020 aren’t a gigantic sample size and reveal only so much as the Ravens are trying to replace a potential Hall of Famer at right guard. No one on the current roster was going to fill Yanda’s shoes without some substantial drop-off, making both between-the-tackle running and pass protection more difficult than last season.

Even before his minor knee injury and season-low two rushes in Week 5 and not including end-of-half kneels, Jackson was averaging a career-low 8.75 carries per game through the first four weeks, another factor that impacts the rushing attack and offense as a whole.

The Hurst trade may have brought good value resulting in the second-round selection of running back J.K. Dobbins, but it also weakened a dynamic tight end group that was pivotal for both the run and pass a year ago. Perhaps it’s not a coincidence that two-tight end sets haven’t brought nearly the same success rate on first-down runs or second-down passes as a year ago. That’s not a knock on Andrews or fullback Patrick Ricard playing more snaps, but it’s just part of a still-developing identity for a Ravens offense that’s reaping the benefits of the best starting field position in the NFL thanks to the defense and special teams.

The good news is the Ravens’ ability to continue winning at a high rate while the offense explores its options to figure it out, a scary proposition for the rest of the NFL.  

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