Mission incredible: How Ravens reinvented their offense on the fly

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Leading up to the draft, offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg and his staff devised a plan for how the the Baltimore Ravens‘ attack would change if the team selected Lamar Jackson.

Little did anyone know that this would soon lead to perhaps the greatest philosophical switch at midseason in NFL history.

With the strong-armed Joe Flacco, the Ravens threw the ball more than any team in the league. Since switching to Jackson in Week 11, Baltimore is putting up rushing numbers that haven’t been seen in over four decades, faking out defenders with option plays and punishing them with run after run.

If the extreme transformation wasn’t impressive enough, the Ravens flipped their offensive identity in one week, going from a classic dropback passing team to one that now will line up in an inverted wishbone.

“Normally to do what’s been done would be basically impossible — except for the fact that we’ve already built that into our offense,” coach John Harbaugh said. “So, we were working the blocking schemes all along in practice, in training camp and all that. But I think it’s remarkable and very impressive that our coaches and players have been able to do that.”

While Flacco threw a league-high 379 times in the first nine games, the Ravens found creative ways to keep Jackson involved, using him in a handful of plays each game. When Flacco suffered a hip injury on Nov. 4, the Ravens went all in on Jackson and a run-dominated game plan, which meant going deeper into the rookie first-round pick’s part of the playbook and dusting off some plays that hadn’t been practiced since training camp.

There was no grand declaration in any meetings that Baltimore was making this drastic change. Knowing the different skill sets of Flacco and Jackson, the players weren’t surprised when they installed the heavy amount of running plays that week, which were very well-received.

“Everyone was like, ‘OK, let’s do this,'” center Matt Skura said. “There was a collective agreement.”

This reinvention of the Ravens offense has provided an emotional lift in Baltimore’s huddle, confused opposing defenses and put this team back in the playoff race. The Ravens (8-6) bring their brand of old-school football with a modern twist to Los Angeles, where they play the Chargers (11-3) on Saturday night.

To put into perspective how dominating the Ravens have been running the ball, ESPN Stats & Information extrapolated the five games with Jackson as the starter over a full season:

  • Jackson would be on pace for 275 rushes and 1,366 rushing yards in 16 games. Since 1970, the most rushes by a quarterback in a season is 141 by Bobby Douglass in 1972 and the most rush yards is 1,039 by Michael Vick in 2006.

  • The Ravens are averaging 230.4 rushing yards per game, which would rank as the most over a full season since the 1936 Lions (240.4).

  • Baltimore is averaging 36:07 in time of possession, which would be the most over a full season since that data became available in 1983.

As the Ravens view it, the transition to a new-look offense was a challenge for them. But it has been a bigger adjustment for defenses trying to figure out a style of offense that is more often seen at Navy rather than the NFL.

“It’s like facing two different offenses,” Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict said. “With Joe Flacco, he just stands back there and isn’t very mobile, but he throws the ball hard. This guy [Jackson] is very unpredictable.”‘

The foundation of the offense can be traced back to Colin Kaepernick’s days with the San Francisco 49ers. Ravens assistant Greg Roman, who was the 49ers’ offensive coordinator at that time, has put Jackson in the pistol formation (quarterback lines up closer to the center than the shotgun and the running back sets up behind the quarterback) just like Kaepernick.

From there, the Ravens can attack defenses in a multitude of ways, including an inverted wishbone, where Jackson is flanked by two tight ends and a running back lines up behind him. It can be a dizzying three hours for defenses just to find the ball with the amount of option fakes, motions (wide receivers will go across the formation and can either get the ball or be used as pulling blockers) and misdirections (offensive linemen will block one direction and Jackson will run with the ball the opposite way).

With every big run, the Ravens’ offensive linemen will pump their fists in the air toward the sideline while the defenders are scratching their heads.

“They did some stuff that we didn’t see on film,” Buccaneers linebacker Lavonte David said. “It just got us out of our rhythm. You have to give them credit.”

The Ravens don’t see their offense under Jackson as a fad like the Wildcat, which was one-dimensional and faded away after a season once defenses figured it out. The run options have proven effective over time and are essentially the same principles that Harbaugh’s father, Jack, used.

One reason why Baltimore has been so successful is the numbers game. With your typical NFL offense, defenses don’t have to account for the quarterback in the running game. With Jackson being the Ravens’ most explosive playmaker, defenses have to play 11-on-11.

Another factor is deception. On a given play, defenders don’t know if Jackson is going to hand the ball off to a running back, flip it to a wide receiver on a jet sweep or keep it himself.

The uncertainty keeps a defense on its heels. When Jackson takes the snap and can hand the ball off or keep it, you can see the linebackers hesitate because they don’t know whether to crash down on the middle or set the edge.

“When you can establish the inside run, the perimeter offense, all the bells and whistles with Jackson, they’re very hard to defend,” Raiders coach Jon Gruden said. “You’ve got to stop the inside run, or you have no chance to stop everything else.”

The Ravens were far from unstoppable in running the ball earlier this year. With Flacco, Baltimore ranked No. 27 in the NFL in rushing (92.6).

In overhauling the offense with Jackson, the Ravens have run the ball at will. Baltimore is the first team since the 1976 Steelers to rush for over 190 yards in five straight games.

With this change, the Ravens don’t see themselves as turning back the clock as much as providing their best path to success in the present.

“It’s tough to stop that style of play,” Harbaugh said. “It’s tough to stop that for a whole game when it’s executed well with physicality. And, our guys are doing that, and I’m proud of them for that, and that’s the way we’re playing football right now.”

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