The Baltimore Ravens have now ended two seasons in a row with hasty playoff exits. The team, which opened its 2020 training camp on Tuesday, lost the 2018 AFC wild card game at home to the Los Angeles Chargers before suffering a stunning upset in the divisional round last season at the hands of the upstart Tennessee Titans.
But the way the team finished doesn’t diminish what it did between those two losses. Head coach John Harbaugh said during a preseason interview last year that his team would have a revolutionary offense in its first full season with Lamar Jackson under center, and he was right.
Jackson was unanimously voted the league’s MVP, and the team finished the regular season with the best record in the NFL, the league’s top-scoring offense and the best rushing attack in NFL history. While the second-year quarterback’s elevated play was key to the unit’s success, the usage of its trio of tight ends and the stable of backfield mates for Jackson allowed the offense to truly flourish – especially out of heavy formations.
Although the Ravens used a variety of personnel sets, their heavy formations garnered national attention because they contradicted the rest of the NFL. While the rest of the league was building offenses out of spread formations, Baltimore designed a system that ran nearly half of its plays from heavy formations,1 according to ESPN’s Stats & Information Group. Out of 1,060 total offensive snaps in the regular season, Baltimore lined up 453 times (or 42.7 percent of its snaps) in heavy formations that featured different pairs of the tight ends plus Ricard. Meanwhile, the rest of the league lined up for only 27 percent of plays from heavy sets.
In 2019, Baltimore relied extensively on fullback Patrick Ricard2 and tight ends Mark Andrews, Nick Boyle and Hayden Hurst. The team traded Hurst to Atlanta in the offseason, but undrafted rookie Eli Wolf will compete for that third tight end spot with Charles Scarff, who spent last year on the practice squad.3 So it seems likely that the Ravens will continue this scheme this year.
The members of Baltimore’s tight end/fullback crew were reliable blockers for Jackson and the running backs (Mark Ingram, Gus Edwards and Justice Hill) as well as viable receivers, which allowed the offense to use multiple variations of the group within the heavy sets to keep defenses guessing. In some cases, the team even had all four on the field at once.
Despite having fewer total rushing yards and yards per carry with heavy personnel than with spread personnel (the Ravens rushed for 1,089 yards in heavy sets while rushing 1,560 yards in spread sets), the team’s production within the heavy sets was vital to its success because it used them to extend drives and control the clock. But perhaps even more important was Baltimore’s third-down conversion rate on plays from heavy packages: The unit converted 69 percent of third downs during the regular season. Converting on these downs at such a high rate led to the team averaging nearly 35 minutes of possession time.
Their production on the ground also regularly opened up the passing game by forcing defenses to use personnel packages designed for crowding the line of scrimmage. This created opportunities for the offense to capitalize on mismatches by forcing bigger and slower defenders to cover the tight ends. Jackson was able to make the most of these moments, as each of the three tight ends recorded at least 20 receptions for over 200 yards. Andrews, Boyle and Hurst averaged 12.3 yards per reception while accounting for over half of the team’s 1,569 total passing yards from heavy formations. Although Ricard was mostly used as a blocker throughout the season, he also recorded a touchdown catch out of a heavy set and finished the regular season with eight total catches for 47 yards.
The depth and versatility of the group enabled them to account for nearly half of the team’s total receiving yards and 15 of Jackson’s 36 passing touchdowns. Andrews finished the regular season as the team’s leading receiver, with 852 receiving yards and 10 touchdowns, and he led all tight ends in touchdowns.
Baltimore’s postseason loss to the Titans showed what can happen if teams are able to limit the team’s dynamic rushing attack. After allowing the Titans to take a 14-point lead early in the second quarter, the Ravens started favoring the pass in an attempt to cut the lead. Jackson recorded a career-high 22 pass attempts in the first half, while the team had only 16 first-half rushing attempts. Jackson finished the game with 59 passing attempts, another career high.
Jackson and the offense went into halftime with season lows in total rushing yards and yards per carry. The unit averaged 3.81 yards per rush and gained only 61 yards on the ground. After averaging more than 37 rush attempts per game during the regular season, Baltimore finished the game with 29 carries – tying the second-lowest total of carries the team recorded in a game all season.
The Ravens’ struggles were most apparent on a pair of fourth downs. Coming into the postseason, Baltimore had converted on eight of eight fourth-and-1 attempts, but it failed to convert on fourth-and-1 in the second quarter and again in the third against the Titans. The offense posted its third-lowest total of snaps and yards gained from heavy formations in the loss (17 plays for 77 yards) and also completed a season-low 37.5 percent of passes from heavy sets.
While Baltimore’s last outing was another postseason disappointment, the team’s future is still bright as it heads into another season. What remains to be seen is whether the rest of the league will have caught on to the Ravens’ unconventional offensive approach and devised a way to stop it, or if Jackson and his plethora of diverse weapons will carry them to another postseason.