The Ravens' Pre-Snap Motion Is A Deadly Weapon — But It Might Also Lead To More Penalties
The Baltimore Ravens were cruising on their first drive Sunday against the Jacksonville Jaguars. Quarterback Lamar Jackson began the game by drilling a laser 20 yards downfield to tight end Mark Andrews for a 25-yard gain. Then the running game got going, and the Ravens offense gashed the Jags for gains of eight and nine yards. Baltimore even had some fumble luck go its way on a play where Andrews fumbled, but the ball was ruled out of bounds at the Jacksonville 30. The Ravens marched down the field to the Jacksonville 10, and on all but one play they pushed an edge they’ve exploited more than any other team in the league recently: They had a man in motion at the snap.
The Ravens are the kings of motion. ESPN’s Seth Walder was among the first to write about the unreasonable effectiveness of pre-snap motion back in 2019, and he asked why more teams weren’t copying Baltimore and using it more often. According to Walder, in 2019 a play with motion at the snap was worth around 0.08 more expected points added than a play with no motion. (That’s no small gap — it’s the difference between the Miami Dolphins offense and the Arizona Cardinals offense this season.) Now, because of its effectiveness, it appears the league has caught on to the tactic. In 2022, the pre-snap motion premium has fallen to just 0.03 EPA/play. Still, an edge is an edge, and the Ravens continue to exploit it.
Baltimore has used motion at the snap on 1,468 plays since 2017, 350 more times than the second-place Los Angeles Rams. On that opening drive against the Jags, the Ravens were simply continuing that trend. But what happened to them next might hold a clue that running pre-snap motion isn’t without its costs.
When Jackson and the offense lined up on second-and-goal from the 10-yard line, two separate players motioned prior to the snap. First, fullback Patrick Ricard moved to the right side of the line; then, Devin Duvernay motioned from his position at flanker on the right side of the field all the way across the to the left slot. By this point, the play clock had wound down to zero, Baltimore was penalized five yards for delay of game, and Jackson nearly spiked the ball in frustration. The Ravens’ promising drive ended up turning into just a field goal.
This wasn’t an isolated occurrence for the Ravens. Baltimore leads the NFL in delay-of-game penalties this season with seven (six accepted). And they’re not exactly unique in that regard. Delay-of-game penalties tend to accompany most teams that run a lot of plays with motion at the snap. Since 2017, teams that favor men in motion before the snap tend to get flagged for more delay-of-game penalties.
While the association isn’t overpowering,1 it’s certainly noteworthy — and it would be even stronger if it weren’t for that big red “SF” logo on the lower right. Besides Kansas City, which ran 135 plays with motion at the snap in 2019 with zero delay penalties, the San Francisco 49ers are the clear outlier here: The Niners ran the third-most plays with motion at the snap since 2017, yet they were penalized for far fewer delays than the Ravens and exactly half as many times as the Rams.
Why might this be?
At first blush, it’s tempting to credit San Francisco head coach Kyle Shanahan. Back when he was offensive coordinator in Atlanta, the Falcons twice went an entire season without a penalty for delay of game. Getting the play in quickly to his QB is something he’s said he works hard on: “Any play caller that you talk to, that’s usually the most important thing,” Shanahan told reporters in 2017. “That’s something I pride myself on a lot: How quickly can you get a play call into the quarterback?”
Looking at play-clock data, we see at least some evidence for this explanation. There’s a weak negative correlation between a team’s number of plays with motion at the snap and how much time it tends to leave on the play clock.2 But that general finding doesn’t explain the difference between the Ravens and the Niners. On plays with motion since 2017, the Ravens have snapped the ball with about as much time left on the play clock as the Niners (8.3 seconds vs. 8.1 seconds on average), according to Pro Football Focus. In other words, while teams that run motion tend to let the clock wind down further, somehow San Francisco was penalized 15 fewer times than the Ravens while Baltimore snapped the ball 0.2 seconds quicker, on average.3 It’s a deeply weird result that reeks of Shanahan dark magic.
Whatever the 49ers’ secret is, Ravens offensive coordinator Greg Roman could use some of it. Baltimore is now two games back in the race for the No. 1 seed in the AFC, trailing the Kansas City Chiefs, Miami Dolphins and Buffalo Bills, and locked in a four-way tie with the Tennessee Titans, New York Jets and the resurgent Cincinnati Bengals. Our Elo projections currently give the Ravens just a 2 percent chance at a first-round bye as well — in no small part because of a loss to Jacksonville by just one point. While that entire margin can’t be attributed to the ill-timed delay-of-game penalty,4 little mistakes like that can add up when a team is vying for the Super Bowl — and in Baltimore’s case, the cruel irony is that one of its greatest strategic strengths may doom it to more of those penalties than most.
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