OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The Baltimore Ravens have heard all the talk about how their run-option offense is a fad and how it’s only a matter of time before defenses figure it out.
The Ravens’ response: Go watch film of one of the greatest basketball players of all time.
“I don’t know if we can put Lamar Jackson in this rare air, but when Michael Jordan was playing, everybody knew he was going to shoot the fadeaway. But they still had to stop it,” Baltimore backup quarterback Robert Griffin III said. “Even if you know it’s coming, you still have to tackle, you still have to make plays on the field. That’s the mindset we have.
“When your talent is supposed to show, it’ll show, just like when Michael was out there backing guys down and shooting the fadeaway. Sometimes, it’s hard to stop.”
After Jackson took over as starting quarterback in Week 11, the Ravens rushed for 1,607 yards, the third most in a team’s final seven games in the Super Bowl era and the most since the 1976 Pittsburgh Steelers, according to ESPN Stats & Information research.
The next closest team this season is the Seattle Seahawks, who rushed for 1,190 yards over that same stretch. That’s an average of nearly fewer 60 yards per game.
“We already are sold on [the sustainability of the offense] or we wouldn’t be running the offense,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. “We already believe that, and this is not some fly-by-night offense.”
Unlike any other team, Baltimore relies on a run-option system in which one basic principle is Jackson reading the defender on the outside. If the defender sets the edge, Jackson hands off to his running back. If the defender crashes inside, Jackson keeps the ball and runs to the outside.
Some NFL observers wonder whether it will inevitably go the way of the Wildcat offense, which lasted for a season.
“This type of an offense has been around for decades and decades. The concepts have been there,” Harbaugh said. “The passing game just didn’t get invented in the past couple years. It’s been around for a while, and it’s been developed. I’m excited to see where it goes.”
Teams have been trying different tactics to throw off the Ravens. Last Sunday, the Cleveland Browns stacked two defenders on the outside, making it harder for Jackson on his reads.
“We watch film just like they do,” Jackson said. “So whatever they do, we’re trying to match that or do better. It doesn’t really matter.”
On the strength of the running game, Jackson and the Ravens won six of their final seven games to capture the AFC North. One reason for Baltimore’s success is the difficulty for defenses to prepare for such an unconventional offense.
In Sunday’s wild-card game in Baltimore, the Los Angeles Chargers (12-4) will be the first team to face the Jackson-led Ravens offense for a second time. On Dec. 23, the Ravens beat the Chargers 22-10 in Los Angeles by running for 159 yards. But L.A. held Baltimore to 138 yards of total offense (40 yards rushing) in the second half.
Do the Chargers have an advantage in facing Jackson twice in three weeks?
“You never know what they’re thinking and what they’re planning,” Chargers coach Anthony Lynn said. “They could be banking on some familiarity and then do something completely different and catch us off guard. I think what they’re doing, they’re doing it well. I don’t see them changing a lot. Yes, those reps that we got a couple weeks ago will help, but I’m looking for them to do something a little different, as well.”
What’s certain is that any scheme will revolve around Jackson, Baltimore’s most explosive playmaker.
Jackson’s 695 yards rushing led all quarterbacks this season. After he became the starter in the middle of November, he was the NFL’s seventh-leading rusher with an average of 79.4 yards per game.
“Some people think they’re Superman,” Ravens offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg said, “and he’s kind of one of those.”