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Baltimore Ravens Enter a Pivotal Year with Optimism

by Warren Sharp
Updated On: July 26, 2021, 3:50 pm ET

The 2020 Ravens made the playoffs and Lamar Jackson won his first playoff game.  But before we discuss the positives, let's hit on reasons to be concerned.

An incredible 12 of the Ravens’ 16 regular season games in 2020 were played against defenses that ranked below average. Baltimore played nine games against bottom-10 defenses last year.

And instead of ranking first nearly across the board in offensive efficiency, everything dropped. Overall efficiency dropped from first to 20th. Early Down Success Rate (EDSR) dropped from first to 22nd.

The red flag for the Ravens offense was they could have been even worse in 2020 but they performed extremely well in high-leverage situations. Baltimore, led by Lamar Jackson’s legs and a strong run game, ranked fourth in red zone efficiency and fourth in third down efficiency. So despite dropping to below average marks in most other elements of offensive efficiency, being great on high-leverage plays allowed the Ravens to still win games. 

And while the Ravens took a big step back in one-score games (going 2-4 in 2020 after 5-1 in 2019), Baltimore had a huge edge, ranked first in fumble luck and second in field goal luck. Ravens opponents missed the most field goals as compared to expectations of any team in the NFL. These factors certainly benefited Baltimore in a big way.

Looking at the Ravens’ week-to-week ability to win the early down battle, it was clear very early in the season this team was a far cry from 2019’s version. In 2019, Baltimore won the early down battle in 13 of 16 games. The Ravens went 5-11 in the early down battle in 2020.

They relied far more on their third down conversions and red zone greatness in 2020 than they had to in 2019.

So specifically, what went wrong for the Ravens offense? 

Opposing defenses took Lamar Jackson out of the run game unless the Ravens were in three-wide sets. The Ravens missed TE Hayden Hurst far more than expected and didn’t receive nearly the level of receiving production from TE Mark Andrews that he provided in 2019. The Ravens couldn’t utilize 13 personnel which was their most efficient grouping in 2019. Running back pass efficiency dropped off massively. Teams played a lot less man coverage and a lot more zone against the Ravens offense. In part due to significantly worse pass protection, deep passing efficiency wasn’t there. In concert with the pass protection issues, any drop longer than 3-steps saw tremendous decline in efficiency. The Ravens shifted from one of the most between-the-tackles run teams to a team that ran far more to the edges, and runs between the tackles were far less efficient. Baltimore passed the ball far more often on second-and-long, which saw less success. Many other things declined as compared to 2019.

Let’s first tackle the run game, considering the Ravens are the NFL’s most run-heavy team. 
 
In 2019, the Ravens used 11 or 10 personnel (which feature three and four wide receivers) on only 41% of offensive plays on early downs in the first three quarters. That ranked fifth-lowest in the NFL. They also ranked fifth-lowest in 2020. Lamar Jackson is brilliant in the run game from 11 personnel.

Last year Jackson averaged 8.9 YPC, 62% success, and 0.56 EPA/att when running out of 11 personnel. While you might assume that most of these runs are designed pass plays which become scrambles, only 38% of his runs were on designed pass plays, and the efficiency on those plays was far worse than the QB designs:

Designed run from 11: 9.7 YPC, 66% success, 0.63 EPA/att
Scramble on designed pass from 11: 7.8 YPC, 56% success, 0.50 EPA/att

The problem was, while Lamar was also dominant on designed runs out of heavy groupings in 2019, that was not the case in 2020.

Looking at non-scrambles, removing a couple QB sneaks, and focusing just on Lamar’s runs from every other grouping other than 11, such as 22, 21, 12, 13, etc:

2019: 7.4 YPC, 75% success, +0.29 EPA/att on 64 runs
2020: 4.2 YPC, 47% success, -0.01 EPA/att on 49 runs

After a 2019 season which featured Jackson running wild from both 11 personnel and all the heavy sets the Ravens use at the fifth highest rate in the NFL, defenses took all of those runs away from Lamar. If the Ravens were in heavy sets, they tried to stop Lamar on the ground, first and foremost.

Even if you add scrambles back to the mix, and look at every run from Jackson out of anything but 11 personnel other than QB kneels and sneaks, it’s was a huge decline:

2019: 7.8 YPC, 73% success, 0.34 EPA/att on 90 runs
2020: 4.6 YPC, 45% success, -0.05 EPA/att on 71 runs

If you remove Lamar from the mix and look at every other run play from non-11 personnel, the Ravens RBs actually were very productive from heavy personnel groupings in 2020: 4.8 YPC, 60% success, 0.10 EPA/att. 

Compare these numbers to the NFL average for RBs in non-11 personnel rushes: 4.2 YPC, 49% success, -0.04 EPA/att.

Defenses took away Lamar, left the Ravens RBs to put up well above average numbers, but refused to let Lamar beat them on the ground in personnel groupings that didn’t scream pass play.

One way to combat defenses that are focusing substantial attention to the quarterback on the ground in non-11 personnel sets is to increase the pass rate on these plays, when defenses may be spying Lamar. Last year the Ravens were 67% run when not in 11 personnel, which was the most run-heavy in the NFL. Even last year’s less explosive and less efficient passing offense was more efficient passing from 21, 12, and 22 than it was from 11 personnel. Additionally, to still access Lamar’s brilliance on the ground the Ravens could run Lamar even more often from 11 personnel, where he was absolutely dominant.

We know the Ravens entered 2020 without Marshal Yanda, who retired. They also suffered offensive line injuries during the season and ranked 17th in offensive line health (third in 2019), The biggest loss was stud LT Ronnie Stanley after just six games  to a  torn ACL. That played a role in run blocking as well. Because of that, the Ravens chose to run far less often between the tackles in 2020. 

In 2019, the Ravens ran behind their guards or center on 68% of runs, a rate well above average (54%). But in 2020, Baltimore ran between tackles on only 47% of runs, not only a huge 21% decrease from 2019, but shifting them from well above average to well below average. Production suffered dramatically as well, as these runs were far less efficient as compared to 2019. Baltimore’s right side of the line has been overhauled, with offseason additions of RT Alejandro Villanueva and RG Kevin Zeitler. They get Stanley back at LT. We will see if the revamped offensive line allows the Ravens to get more efficiency out of runs between the tackles and if they increase their directional run rate as a result.

The additions of wide receivers Rashod Bateman (Round 1) and Tylan Wallace (Round 4) along with Sammy Watkins (free agency) give the Ravens considerably more juice in that position than they had in Jackson’s career to date. The hope is a rebuilt receiving corps will bring fewer drops. The Ravens had the seventh-lowest drop rate in 2019, but it increased by over 2.5% in 2020 and was fifth-worst.

Another significant negative for the Ravens in 2020 was the lack of tight end production. Hayden Hurst was never truly replaced from 2019. The Ravens anticipated Nick Boyle would step into that role, but he was lost to injury in November after playing in only nine games. But he was nowhere near the receiving threat that Hurst was. Hurst’s 0.70 EPA/attempt in 2019 led all Ravens. In addition, because he wasn’t actually replaced, the Ravens were unable to run 13 personnel in 2020.

In 2019, only one other team used more 13 personnel when passing than the Ravens. It was by far Baltimore’s most efficient grouping to use when passing. They averaged 0.58 EPA (first), 11.2 YPA (first), 70% success (first), and 91% accuracy (first). Jackson had an absurd 19% TD rate when passing from 13. Lamar’s EPA/att on passes from 13 was over double that of any other personnel grouping used in 2019 over 10 times. The Ravens threw 33 passes from 13 personnel in 2019. In 2020, they threw just one.

Mark Andrews, by far the most targeted Raven of 2019, saw his EPA drop from 0.29/att to 0.12 in 2020. It will be interesting to see if new tight end acquisition Josh Oliver (a second-round pick by the Jaguars in 2019, who has been limited to 117 snaps in his two-year career due to injury) can be effective for the Ravens and help replace the upside that Hurst brought the offense, both in terms of receiving production as well as ability use more 13 personnel.

I’ve made many observations as to the dropoff of the mighty Ravens offense from 2019 to 2020, and it may seem like we’re being overly hard on the team. Many other offenses are far worse, so why cite all the issues for the Ravens? Because it’s what they’re doing at 1 Winning Drive at the Under Armour Performance Center. And because it’s warranted.

Baltimore still is one of the best teams in the NFL. But against the fifth-easiest schedule of opponents last year, they underwhelmed based on our high expectations. They’ll now face a more difficult schedule in 2021, particularly as it relates to pass defenses faced (a projected ninth-toughest schedule). The Ravens absolutely must address all of these problems, many of which were too numerous to mention, if they want to win a Super Bowl in Lamar’s rookie deal. They have high expectations of this team and so do I. Many of these issues are fixable.

That leads us to a positive. The good news is, the Ravens are still in Lamar Jackson’s rookie deal which means they can spend elsewhere. From 2014-2021, only one other team has played a three-year stretch where they spent less in total cap space on quarterbacks than the Ravens did from 2019-2021 — the Cowboys from 2017-2019. During that span, there have been 224 three-year stretches and the Ravens rank 222 of those 224.

This theoretically should provide a huge advantage. The three-year cap spending on the quarterback position is $54 million on average for all 32 teams. Baltimore has spent only $15 million. Very soon, Baltimore will have to pay Lamar Jackson. And while I expect him to sign a long-term deal which provides several team-friendly cap years to start, it’s going to be a big change from a roster building perspective. That pending shift makes 2021 a more important year to make a Super Bowl run.

Talk to anyone about the AFC North and all they want to talk about is that the Cleveland Browns should be great and the Pittsburgh Steelers should be worse than expected.  No one wants to discuss the Ravens.  The Ravens are +125 to win the division (PointsBet) but are strong -305 favorites to make the playoffs.  There is very little value in betting them to win the AFC until they prove they're capable of beating the Chiefs.  Baltimore is not just 0-3 the last three years vs the Chiefs, they haven't won vs Andy Reid since he came to Kansas City.

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Warren Sharp

Warren Sharp is a football and betting analyst for NBC Sports. As a leading voice in football analytics, Warren writes a yearly book previewing the upcoming season from all angles at his Sharp Football Analysis website. You can follow Warren Sharp on Twitter @SharpFootball.