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2020 Opponent Scouting Report: Ravens Offense- Welcome to the Modern Wishbone

Pittsburgh Steelers v Baltimore Ravens Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

Overview

On November 8th, 2020 the Indianapolis Colts will host the Baltimore Ravens In this Week 9 match-up, I sought to understand our opponent and get a better idea of how they may attack our Colts.

This week we’re very likely to hear the old stories about how the Irsay family “stole” the Colts from the city of Baltimore. Those folks don’t seem to have a firm grasp on the term “ownership” and leave out the part where the city was literally trying to legally steal the Colts from the Irsays. Also, those people always seem to leave out the part where they “stole” the Browns from Cleveland in order to have their current NFL team. Hypocrisy aside, this week's game has a chance to be a good one.

Let’s see what we can expect in week nine.


Offensive System:

Ravens offensive coordinator Greg Roman has received heaps of praise for the offensive system he has built out for his young quarterback, reigning league MVP Lamar Jackson. The praise is warranted, Roman has done everything he could possibly do to play to his quarterback’s strengths.

You might notice this article has more clips of the quarterback than of the offensive system, which isn’t common for these articles. The truth is, this week I could have easily combined the two sections. There is no other offensive system in the league that is this intertwined with it’s starting quarterbacks skill set than the one Greg Roman has employed in Baltimore.

Most of the time I try to figure out the basis of the offense I’m watching. Most of the time I can pick out cues of the West Coast offense, Air Coryell, the Shanahan West Coast (I don’t know if anyone else has come up with a better name for offenses that have been heavily influenced by the system Mike Shanahan built so that’s what I’m calling it. But this offense doesn’t look like any NFL offense I’ve broken down, so what do you call this offense?

The Modern Wishbone seems fitting. It’s obviously not all based from a wishbone formation but there are various sets that use wishbone like alignments, inverted multiple back and receiver sets in the backfield with Jackson in gun or under center. There are very clear parallels in many of the Ravens formations.

But what happens when you turn on the tape?

Motion-bone

When you turn on the tape, there are so many similarities to old school wishbone plays, it’s impossible to ignore. In the play above the offense has four possible ball carriers to consider. The tight end, #86 Nick Boyle is an unlikely candidate, but he’s an option all the same, #83 Willie Snead IV, who comes in motion and crosses center just after the snap, #21 running back Mark Ingram II or the quarterback, himself. Any of them could receive the ball behind the line of scrimmage and the defense has to account for every possibility.

After the snap Snead turns into a blocker... sort of, his motion made the defensive end take a step toward him, in an effort to contain him inside had Jackson pitched him the ball. That one step up field was needed just in case but it also meant that he was another step away from being able to crash down inside. I’ll be honest, no one was worried about Nick Boyle but Eagles linebacker #47 had to account for the possibility that Jackson would carry the ball himself around the outside. By staying outside it meant he was out of position to make a play in the inside, where the ball eventually went.

The offensive line’s job is made far easier by all of the confusion the different rushing options create. Left guard #77 Bradley Bozeman runs a trap with center #68 Matt Sukra and Bozeman didn’t even touch an Eagles defender. Yet, this run still goes for a big gain through the hole Bozeman was supposed to help create (this was mostly the fault of right guard #74 Tyre Phillips slow start off the line, I believe he should have let the DT go unblocked/mostly unblocked for Bozeman to clean up while getting to the second level quickly).

If this play concept shows us anything at all, it shows us that this Ravens system has been heavily influenced by the wishbone offensive systems of the past.

A sacred tenet of the wishbone is misdirection

Quarterbacks in a traditional wishbone offense master two things very quickly; the precise footwork required to be in the correct position to hand the ball off to any of his first three options, and how to fake a handoff.

The fake handoff adds a level of deception to the already confusing play developing in front of you. You have to respect every movement from the quarterback, if you no longer react to his first option, they’ll just start giving the ball to that first option until you begin to stop that and then they’ll go back to his second, third or fourth option and once again, you’ll be hopelessly out of position if you aren’t playing your technique perfectly.

On this play the Ravens offensive line drops into a pass set, the defensive line rush the passer. Lamar Jackson fakes a throw to his left only to spin and hand the ball off to the back behind him. This play only goes for five yards but this kind of deception is what this system thrives on.

The read option

This ball could have gone to either the back or, well, obviously kept by the quarterback. Jackson reads the backside defensive end (who was intentionally left unblocked). Jackson sees that defender take a wide path to try to stop the back if he gets the ball. This was the right thing for #94 to do. Given the strength of the offenses formation and the defenses alignment, it’s his job to set that edge and redirect this play back inside to where his teammates should be.

Jackson makes the correct read, pulls the ball down and then reads the blocks in front of him. I’m not going to spend a whole lot of time breaking down how the Eagles linebackers really screwed this one up, just know, they’re the biggest reason this play ends the way it does. Also, go back up and watch right tackle Orlando Brown Jr.. At first you might think he’s just being lazy, after all, he’s just kind of taking a leisurely stroll toward the middle of the field. When you realize his entire job on this play was to get to the second level to block #49 and then you realize that #49 didn’t need any help removing himself from the play, you realize that’s just easy money for Orlando Brown Jr..

Yes, these guys pass

Normally I spend a lot of time talking about the opponents passing game and I skip their running game completely. I do this because rushing attacks are usually very similar from one team to the next. These Ravens are the exception to that rule. Having said that you don’t win the MVP award as a 23 year old quarterback in the NFL if you’re not throwing the ball on occasion. I’ll get in to Jackson’s numbers when we talk about him more below, for now we will highlight another part of this offense that makes it so difficult to defend; improvisation.

When Jackson drops back T.J. Watt takes an inside pass rush lane which Jackson feels and escapes to his left. Jackson quickly realizes another defender has come out wide preventing him from having a free run up field. This is something that was probably a heavy point of focus for the Steelers defensive line leading up to the game and something to watch for on Sunday from our Colts. If you see the defensive tackles moving laterally they’re likely doing so on purpose to force Lamar Jackson back inside instead of having a free run into the secondary. It’s not something that the Colts defensive system would normally do but they don’t normally have to defend against someone like Lamar Jackson.

Back to the offense- Jackson sees the defensive tackle take away his running lane, his eyes have either been up field the entire time or he’s able to keep track of all of his routes in his minds eye as he moves around, which is a really difficult thing to do when there are 300 pound men, who are literally paid millions of dollars for just trying to hit you every chance they get. Or he’s simply able to get his eyes upfield and back on his receivers in an instant. In reality it’s likely some combination of both. Jackson absolutely knows approximately where his guys are going to be and he also likely has an amazing ability to just see. Based on what I’ve seen of him, I believe his literal every day vision, his sense of sight, is probably better than most everyone else. Specifically his peripheral vision.

After Jackson steps back up into a position to throw the ball his receiver, who had finished his route instinctively moves to his right and down the field. This is something receivers are trained to do when a quarterback is scrambling around, to make it easier for the quarterback to find you if he manages to get his eyes back up field. Snead had barely made his cut outside when Jackson began to set his feet to throw the ball. This route was improvised but Jackson was on the same page with his receiver and they were both just making it up as they went along. That’s something that is incredibly difficult to defend.

More defensive confusion

It’s been a long time since I’ve prepared to play against a wishbone offense (it’s been a long time since I’ve prepared to play against any kind of offense, to be completely transparent). But I’ll never forget how difficult it was playing defensive tackle against this kind of an attack. On a lot of plays it felt as if I had been left unblocked. I understand that sounds like a dream scenario for any defensive tackle but the real problem with that was how difficult it was to tell if the guard or tackle had made a mistake or if I was set up to walk right into their trap (literally their trap block).

If it was by design I didn’t want to run upfield toward the ball carrier as that meant the backside guard would do his best to put his helmet under my chinstrap and block me into next week, I wish I could say I only had this happen once before I learned my lesson, this may have been why I always enjoyed offense more than defense. If the offensive line had made a mistake it meant that I would in fact have a free run at the ball carrier but figuring out who had the ball was even harder than taking on those well executed trap blocks.

On this play the defensive end/outside linebacker is the one left unblocked, once again that’s by design but instead of blocking him, Jackson has to decide to hand the ball off or keep it himself and what that edge defender does, dictates what Jackson should do. In this case Jackson correctly hands the ball off as his rushing lane had been taken away.

Once again I believe this edge defender made the right decision, why do I believe that? Because I believe the linebacker who lined up 4-5 yards behind the line of scrimmage at the snap was responsible for getting up field and setting the edge. The linebacker who showed blitz pre-snap and then dropped into coverage prevented the flowing linebacker from getting where he needed to go and the rest is history.

Notice how I just glossed over that linebacker dropping into coverage on what was very much a running play? Why did he do that? Because that’s what you have to do against this offense. The original wishbone offenses ran a few plays out of the same formation. They did it over and over again and rarely was a pass thrown. In this high level modern version the pass is just as likely and even if as a defender the keys you read tell you it’s going to be a run or pass, it could just as easily be the opposite so you better defend against everything, evenly.

This offense sews seeds of doubt like few others do. Everyone remembers that clip of Sam Darnold saying that he was “seeing ghosts”, this offense does all it can do to ensure it’s fooling defenders at every turn and no doubt defenses feel like they’re seeing ghosts when this offense is clicking.

Lamar makes the offense

Again this is still the offensive section of the article but it’s impossible to completely separate the system from the player in this case. If you watch the inside linebacker who lines up before the snap closest to the far set of hash marks you’ll see him flow to his left before coming up field. Jackson then throws the ball right behind that defender to a receiver who’s left wide open for an easy touchdown catch.

How could they let him get that open? Easy. That linebacker, the one who flowed too far to his left did so to defend against Jackson if he chose to run. Normally you would kill a linebacker for making that decision, but in this case it’s far more understandable. The entire offensive line moves to their right, the running back goes around the outside and tries to seal off the defender from being able to set an edge. Given all of these things happening and the fact that the quarterback might literally be the fastest guy on the field, it’s completely understandable that the linebacker believed Jackson might be running and he needed to stop it.

Lamar Jackson’s natural ability as a runner is misdirection all on its own.

What’s your best play

When it’s 4th and 2 and the game is on the line, you either convert, you score or you lose you’re going to call the play you think is most likely to get you at least two yards. You call your best play.

I’m not showing you this to show you their failure. The 2020 Steelers defense is a top five unit in almost every statistical category. They’re so good they’re just behind the Colts in points allowed, total yards allowed, passing yards allowed, interceptions and rushing touchdowns allowed, so they’re really good. This isn’t about the Ravens failure to convert, it’s about what the Ravens believe their best play is when the game is on the line. They believe, and I have to agree, their best play is just giving the ball to Lamar Jackson.


Quarterback:

I’ve already told you all about Lamar Jackson but I probably didn’t need to. He was the youngest MVP award winner in NFL history. He threw for 3,127 yards, 36 touchdowns and only 6 interceptions. He added another 1,206 yards rushing and another seven touchdowns on the ground as well. Jackson, in this system, was spectacular a season ago. You probably already knew about the kid that has revolutionized the Baltimore Ravens into a legitimate contender.

Last season was magical for Jackson but the question for every player who has a great year is always the same: can you do it again?

In some ways that might be unfair. After all, it’s been decades since the league has seen some of the running concepts the Ravens rolled out last season, it makes sense that in time defenses would adjust and things would get more difficult for Jackson. In the passing game the more he puts on film the more defensive coordinators around the league will begin to figure out ways to impact him as a passer.

If you’ve been paying attention this season, it seems as if some of these things have already started.

Just to be clear, Lamar Jackson is still playing good football, he’s thrown 12 touchdown passes to only four interceptions, a ratio Colts fans would all enjoy. But this season is obviously very different for Jackson when you turn on the tape.

When it’s good, it’s very good

This is more of the improvisation that makes Lamar Jackson special. His speed makes him actually more dangerous than Baker Mayfield has ever felt after waking up. Defenses respect his speed and his ability to create with his legs and that respect leads to defensive breakdowns that often lead to points.

When things are bad, well, they’re really bad

First, bad throws happen. If I went through and cherrypicked every awful throw Tom Brady has thrown this season I could paint a picture very different than the one big sports media presents every day.

But that’s not what I’m doing here. This was probably the worst pass I’ve seen from Jackson from the games I’ve watched but he has consistently had accuracy issues for much of this season.

I will die on the hill that stats need context for the stat to mean much of anything. Completion percentage is the perfect example of that. If you’re a quarterback in a system that heavily features Air-Raid principals, then naturally your completion percentage is going to be really high. At least it should be or you shouldn’t be starting. If you’re in a system that heavily features five and seven step drops with long, slow developing routes 20+ yards down field, then it makes sense that your completion percentage would be lower than the average guy.

Context.

Lamar Jackson completed 66.1% of his passes in 2019. This season, in the same offensive system he’s completing 60.5%.

No completion needed

There’s not much I can tell you about Lamar Jackson on this play that you can’t already see for yourself. If you give him lanes to run and drop your defenders deep, you’re going to have to hope your linebackers and defensive backs can catch him and make a difficult open field tackle.

The thing that’s different

This play came in the first quarter of the Steelers at Ravens game last week. Jackson was clearly afraid to step into his throw and take a hit. I’m not saying I blame the guy and had he thrown an accurate ball, I wouldn’t be showing you this clip. As it stands, with three quarters of football to play against a division rival Lamar Jackson shied away from contact and threw an inaccurate, nearly intercepted football.

From what I can tell this is his biggest issue that seems new for 2020. It’s not simply that he’s afraid, it’s that he’s letting the hits impact other areas of his game.

Another miss

So far this season Lamar Jackson has been sacked once for every 11 drop backs. In the Pittsburgh game he faced a lot of pressure. In the clip above it seems as though he felt a little bit of pressure coming from his right, quickly stepped up in the pocket and rush his throw without setting his feet. The result was another errant throw.

Throws pick, gets hit

I won’t pretend to understand what happened first. Did he see/feel T.J. Watt winning his block, or did he just lose track of where 41 was on the field when he scanned back to #11 James Proche? If I was going to guess I would say by this point in the game his internal clock was sped up to the point that he probably didn’t even need to feel actual pressure to make this mistake. He wasn’t focused on the coverage as much as he was worried about taking a big hit.

You can’t count him out

You might watch some of these clips and think that Jackson is done, he’s toast, it’s over. But that’s not the case at all. He’s struggling with some things but he still has this ability. When he feels that he’s able to turn and fire his pass to his receiver while stepping into his throw, he can really sling it.

He just hasn’t been consistent doing so lately.

This was a great ball

It’s true that this was a great ball but Jackson still rushed his footwork, it’s just that he was able to put it in the perfect spot regardless. If he could throw like this consistently with sloppy footwork, then much of this article would read very differently.

Perfect coverage

Here the Ravens run a flood concept to Jackson’s left. There’s a receiver who goes deep that pulls the defense vertically, an intermediate route and a shallow route. The play is designed to stress all three levels of a defense and usually it’s a really solid concept.

Part of me thinks the tight end runs his route too shallow as he’s within 5-7 yards of the fullback. They’re both running the same route, which isn’t uncommon but you would think that the Ravens would want to give Jackson a bigger window than running both routes so close to each other.

Regardless of proper route depth, Lamar Jackson could have thrown to his tight end safely on this play, however. Once again we see him fail to set his feet and step into his throw. We see his tight end #89 Mark Andrews adjust to the ball in the air, slowing down as the ball was thrown behind him. Had Jackson thrown the ball to the first down marker either Andrews would have caught the ball or it would have gone out of bounds and incomplete.

Instead Jackson throws an inaccurate ball that probably should have just been thrown away, especially given the fact that it was first down from your own 17 yard line.

Just, why?

The Steelers rush four. The Ravens block everyone. Lamar Jackson has plenty of time. His receivers don’t get open. Lamar Jackson panics. Decides to run, his rush lane to his left is taken away. Slows himself down with an unnecessary spin behind the line of scrimmage. Dives forward for a one yard gain. Amazing.

Lamar Jackson is a very talented quarterback. He can kill you with his ability to run the ball and he’s capable of being a very good passer. This season his internal clock seems “off” and he’s rushing things that shouldn’t be rushed. It has resulted in some really rough play from the 24 year old former MVP.

Having said that, Jackson can’t be taken lightly. At any point he could fix whatever issue he’s having internally and return to the guy we saw a season ago.


Running Back:

The Ravens have led the NFL in rushing for the past two seasons and three seasons ago they finished with the second most rushing yards. I guess you could say they’re committed to running the ball. Normally the player that leads his team in rushing yards is a running back. That makes sense, after all, it’s literally the name of the position. In 2019 and thus far in 2020 the Ravens leading rusher plays quarterback. The entire offense really does go through Jackson, I wasn’t being hyperbolic when I said that.

However, if you read the section about the offensive system, you understand that in order to make the countless misdirection concepts work the way they need to work the Ravens have to have viable threats outside of Jackson. And they have several viable threats.

When you think of Ravens running backs your first thought probably isn’t Gus Edwards (#35) but perhaps it should be, he leads the running backs in both attempts and yards and put up more than 700 rushing yards in each of his first two seasons, all while averaging 5.2 yards per carry. Due to the way sports media works you probably think of Mark Ingram (#21) first, who is second on the team, though he missed last week with an ankle injury and his status for this weekends game is unknown as of Thursday morning. Third on the team is second round rookie J.K. Dobbins (#27) out of Ohio State.

Gus is good

My daughter really loves all things Cinderella right now, the movie, books, t-shirts and pajamas with Cinderella’s depiction on them, everything. A couple years ago I wouldn’t have thought about Cinderella at all when talking about Gus Edwards but he’s named Gus and the fat dopey mouse friend in Cinderella is named Gus and goes by Gus-Gus. So this Sunday I’ll try to get my daughter interested in the game by calling this guy Gus-Gus.

I should probably tell you about the player more than drawing some connection between his name and how many times I’ve sat through Cinderella wondering why she doesn’t just go get a job and get an apartment but I digress.

Gus Edwards is a very talented back in his own right. He has some stiffness in his lower body but he moves really well and has good vision. He’s not someone that would necessarily be considered a homerun threat in other offenses but this Ravens offense makes it possible for any of their backs, receivers or their quarterback to go the distance and Edwards seems to have enough long speed that if they play is blocked well, he could break off a really long run.

I won’t make a connection between Dobbins and Harry Potter, you’re welcome.

I included this clip mostly because I wanted to show that the Ravens do have completely standard zone running concepts in their offense as well and J.K. Dobbins seems to enjoy them. Of the three backs Dobbins has easily been the most explosive. He’s quick, he has great change of direction ability and he seems to see the field well.

The Ravens truly have three backs talented enough to be considered most teams #1 back. Combine that with the best running quarterback in the game and it would be disappointing if the Ravens didn’t lead the league in rushing.


Pass Catchers:

Even though the Ravens have run the ball more times than they’ve attempted passes, the guys who are tasked with bringing in those passes are important too. The story of the Ravens tight ends and receivers are really a two man race. Marquise Brown (#15) and Mark Andrews, lead the team in targets, receptions and yards. Andrews also leads the team with five receiving touchdowns this season.

Willie Snead IV, Miles Boykin (80) and Devin Duvernay (13) are also names to know.

This group of receivers is one with a lot of speed and guys who can create a lot of yards after the catch.

Separation

Marquise Brown has speed to burn but he’s becoming a complete receiver. He runs good routes and his speed helps him create space underneath as defensive backs try to prevent being beaten deep. I noticed several times Brown would adjust his route and gear down when finding himself in a window created by zone coverage. Brown is someone who can change the game in a hurry.

Explosive plays

This was rookie Devin Duvernay’s lone catch last week but this conversion on third down was huge for his team. Thus far Duvernay hasn’t had a massive role but with a kickoff returned for a touchdown, a 42 yard run and this 39 yard catch, it’s pretty clear that getting the ball in his hands means an explosive play is possible.

The Ravens receivers are talented but they aren’t the main focus of the offense. Brown is talented enough to make any team pay if respect isn’t paid but the Ravens are averaging fewer than 200 yards passing per game.


Offensive Line:

From left to right:

Orlando Brown Jr., Bradley Bozeman, Matt Skura, Patrick MeKari, D.J. Fluker

This lineup is assumed due to the fact that starting all-pro left tackle Ronnie Stanley left last weeks game with a gruesome lower leg injury and will miss the rest of the season. So Orlando Brown Jr. will move from right tackle to left tackle and DJ Fluker moves to a starting role at right tackle.

Obviously the biggest question the offensive line is going to have are at those two positions. Can Brown transition to the left and play at a decent level? Can Fluker play at a passible level on the right side? These questions don’t really have an answer right now.

Outside of those two the biggest question mark I saw on this offensive line was at the right guard spot. The Ravens lost Stanley last week but they also lost their starting right guard Tyre Phillips, a rookie out of Mississippi. Phillips struggled at times and center Matt Skura didn’t seem to help that issue all that often.

This offensive line has been very good opening holes for their backs but they’ve given up a lot of pressure when Lamar Jackson has dropped back to pass and I can’t imagine that’s going to improve after losing Ronnie Stanley.

The offensive line gets a “sack allowed” here

To be fair to all parties Eagles defensive tackle Fletcher Cox makes a lot of guards look bad but he won a lot of reps against this offensive line. Here he starts to come free while Jackson gets some pressure from his right. He’s unable to step up and instead of seeing how many rows up he can throw the ball into the stands, Jackson takes a sack and the offensive line looks worse on the stat sheet.

Yikes

For starters Gus-Gus Edwards block on this play was atrocious. Beyond that Jackson steps up into his pocket and instead of rushing like he has so often done as of late, he seems content to take his time which allows Bud Dupree to recover and get the strip sack. The offensive line had a slide left protection scheme, Dupree was in no way their responsibility but once again the stat sheet will blame them all the same.

Terrible play

At this point in the game right guard Tyre Phillips had already come out and Patrick Mekari had replaced him. Stephon Tuitt had his way with the former UDFA out of Cal. Meanwhile Orlando Brown Jr. does a fine job running T.J. Watt wide around the outside, but he gave him one final push that knocked him off balance as he reached for Lamar Jackson and that push sent him into the back of Ronnie Stanley’s legs. Stanley was carted off the field with his left leg in an air-cast.

Life post Stanley

Orlando Brown Jr. has spent his entire three year career playing right tackle for the Ravens. It’s unfair to count him out as a viable option at the left tackle spot. Having said that, he didn’t look great at the position against the Steelers.

For the most part, the result of this block is fine. He runs Bud Dupree around the arc and he shouldn’t be able to make a play. On the other hand his footwork is really, really bad. With more time to prepare to play on the left side I expect Brown to be more comfortable but based on what we’ve seen so far, if I were the Ravens I would be concerned leaving him one on one with good edge rushers going forward.

The Ravens offensive line has largely been good this season. Jackson at times, can run himself into trouble but these guys execute their run schemes at such a high level. It will be interesting to see how they can recover from so many changes that happened just a week ago. The Colts are coming off of the best defensive line performance of the year and will be champing at the bit to get after this newly untested unit.


Final Thoughts:

With any other quarterback I would spend this section telling you how the Colts defense was going to dominate this offense. Their injuries on the offensive line combined with the Colts front seven’s ability to stop the run, in a normal game, that’s a no brainer.

The Ravens receivers pose some matchup issues, specifically with Hollywood Brown’s speed and just overall talent level, but he’s not peak Calvin Johnson, I don’t think he could completely take over the game no matter who his quarterback is at this point in his career. He’s just not there yet.

The reason I’m not jumping up and down telling you to bet on the Colts this week is simple; Lamar Jackson is completely, 100% capable of winning a game for his team they have no business winning without him. If Jackson’s struggles as a passer continue, it will be more difficult to be sure, but either way he can and often does change games with his athleticism.

Due to the unique nature of he Ravens offense it’s possible that the Colts defense will uncharacteristically give up some big plays on the ground. It’s tough to predict how they will look just due to this scheme. Any other week I would tell you that the Colts match up really well against this team, and I believe they do, I just think it would be best to be cautiously optimistic for this weekends game.