OWINGS MILLS, Md. — As Baltimore Ravens offensive coordinator Greg Roman puts it, the offensive players have gone from drinking from a firehose to breaking out the paint brushes.
Strange actually describes how the NFL’s highest-scoring offense felt last year because of the unusual season, which included no offseason practices, an abbreviated training camp and the cancellation of all preseason games. With decreased reps in the spring and summer of 2020, Lamar Jackson and the Ravens were flooded with information and were forced to try new wrinkles on game days.
Now, with the return of organized training activities (OTAs) in May and June, Baltimore can experiment, especially in the passing game, and see how much its offense can grow in Jackson’s third full season as a starting quarterback. Roman compared this much-needed trial-and-error period to painting a wall.
“You put one coat of paint on it and it doesn’t look very good,” Roman said in a conference call with Ravens season-ticket holders. “But you put that second and third coat, you’re like ‘wow’ that looks spectacular. That’s how I look at it this time of year. We’re putting on the first coat of paint. During minicamp [in the middle of June], we’ll put the second coat of paint on, and training camp [in July and August] will be a long third coat of paint until we finish things up.”
What will it look like in the end? The Ravens may not be as run-centric as the past two seasons, when Baltimore called a run play on a league-high 51% of plays (the next closest was the Minnesota Vikings at 46%), according to ESPN Stats & Information.
This style of offense has led Baltimore to average an NFL-best 31.2 points over the last two years. But it hasn’t translated in the playoffs, where the Ravens have scored a total of 32 points in Jackson’s three playoff losses.
“I really think the way things are structured this year, we’re going to have a chance to get our preparation done this time of year and this summer to where we can have a more balanced attack,” Roman said. “Who knows? There might be some games this year where we’re really letting it rip.”
Here are other takeaways from Roman’s hour-long, question-and-answer session with fans:
More deep shots
The Ravens haven’t made defenses pay for stacking the box to stop their rushing attack. Last season, Jackson ranked 19th in attempted throws 20 yards or longer downfield (45) and 24th in completion rate on those passes (37.8%).
“You’re talking to the person that was once accused of trying to run it, run it and then throw it over their heads,” Roman said. “Our goal is to win, and if teams are giving us opportunities to throw the ball deep, it’s upon us to work hard and figure that out and really take advantage of that because those are game-changing plays.”
The Ravens’ two biggest additions at wide receiver — Rashod Bateman and Sammy Watkins — could help stretch the field. Bateman averaged 20.3 yards per catch in 2019 (his last full season in college), and Watkins produced 18 catches of 20-plus yards in 2015 (his one season with Roman as his offensive coordinator in Buffalo). Marquise “Hollywood” Brown, Baltimore’s fastest receiver, is also participating in his first full offseason after being limited in 2019 (recovering from foot surgery) and catching passes in his driveway in 2020 (NFL canceled in-person offseason activities due to COVID-19).
Increasing J.K. Dobbins‘ involvement in passing game
One way Baltimore can convert carries into receptions is to ramp up the impact of its top running back in the passing game. In the last two seasons, Jackson’s 89 completions to running backs ranks 28th in the NFL. He’s been more apt to scramble than dump the ball off in the flat.
Roman said the team is working diligently every day to expand Dobbins’ role in the passing attack.
“We’d love to really have a threat out of the backfield. J.K. is a very talented athlete,” Roman said. “He didn’t do much route running in high school or college, really. He was just toting the rock, getting handoffs. I think he has got the skill set and the talent to really include him as a viable weapon in the passing game. That’s a big focus of what we’re doing right now.”
More passes to Dobbins could result in fewer runs (and hits) for Jackson.
Jackson will get more snaps under center
No one in the NFL has worked more exclusively in the pistol and shotgun formations than Jackson. Last season, Jackson started under center only 4% of the time (36 of 889 snaps).
But Jackson has been taking snaps under center more in this year’s offseason practices than at any other time.
“It’s something we will certainly used from time to time, some games more than others,” Roman said. “I believe it’s a very important part in the development of a quarterback.”
Jackson will likely continue to take most of his snaps out of the pistol formation, but starting under center can add more deception to Baltimore’s offense because Jackson will have his back turned to defenses.
Moving Jackson under center can also become a valuable option in bad-weather games. In last season’s playoff loss in Buffalo, the Ravens struggled with the pistol snaps because of windy conditions.
Identity will remain running the ball
The expectation is Jackson will throw the ball more than he did in 2019 and 2020. But no one should project Baltimore to suddenly jump into the top half of the league in pass attempts.
The Ravens take a lot of pride in their ability to dominate in smash-mouth football. Roman pointed out that Baltimore has had “the most dominant, productive running game in the history of football” the past two seasons.
“Anybody that would deviate from tapping into that should be put in a rubber room,” Roman said. “I say that in jest.”
What hasn’t been a joking matter is how the Ravens’ offense has taken plenty of criticism this offseason. Former NFL MVP Kurt Warner and former Ravens wide receiver Steve Smith Sr. both called Baltimore’s passing attack too simplistic. Talk shows trump up the narrative that top free-agent wide receivers don’t want to play for the Ravens.
“We’re going to do what we do,” Roman said. “Nobody is going to Jedi mind trick us or guilt us or shame us into doing things that aren’t us.”