The 12th-ranked Ravens offense featured an all-time great rushing game behind the electric Lamar Jackson, several competent running backs, good blocking, and an expertly designed scheme. At this point, the only quarterback in NFL history who can hold a candle to Lamar in rushing is Michael Vick. Zone reads and designed quarterback runs create a mismatch with the defense relative to handing the ball off because the ratio of blockers to defenders is one man higher. It also enhances the running backs’ opportunities because defenders cannot commit to a tackle early in the play while Jackson has the potential to fake the hand off and take it himself. Few defenses were able to stop their running game as they led the NFL in rushing attempts, yards per carry, and explosive runs.
Lamar was also a good passer at times. The issue is that his style of play reduces the reps in which he processes and learns NFL coverages. When a pocket passer looks at the field, they process the defensive coverage and watch the routes develop, anticipating when and where to make the best throw. Every play, successful or not, theoretically improves their instincts and ability. Lamar does not sit in the pocket and learn this way. He sees running lanes and abuses the defense when they let him out of the pocket. He tried playing the role of pocket passer at times, but Lamar Jackson the pocket passer is only an average NFL quarterback, particularly with only two notable pass catchers on the team. Lamar Jackson the runner is one of the best in the business regardless of his weapons. By doing what he does best, he limits his eventual upside as a passer.
Ravens Passing 2020
|Net Yards Per Pass||6.3||20th|
|On Target %||73.5%||28th|
The Ravens offense came to play every single week and behind their ultra-competitive quarterback and head coach, they had a killer instinct unmatched by any NFL team. When they got the advantage, they simply crushed bad opponents. Their success in the run game consistently set up manageable 3rd downs, which they converted at the NFL’s 2nd-highest rate (after converting at the NFL’s highest rate in 2019). They also had a smart coaching staff that applied analytics and recognized that going for it on 4th down was often the right call. The clearest example of this no-mercy attitude came when they went for it on 4th down up by 26 points against the Jaguars, leading to another touchdown in a 40-14 beatdown.
To compound this tendency, teams that are winning tend to run more. So when the Ravens were winning, they did what they did best. And if they were winning, they likely did it well already and continued to do it well. When they consistently converted first downs, they typically got in the end zone. So when they won, they won big. They led the NFL in wins by 14+ points, clearing that mark on an incredible 75% of their total wins.
Blowouts by NFL Teams with 12+ Wins
|Team||Total Wins||14+ Point Wins||% of Wins|
But naturally, as a team that ran well but passed poorly, they were clearly not as good when they were unable to press the lead. In fact they played worse as an offense against teams with better opposing offenses. They weren’t built for shootouts and got jittery when they did not control the game.
*Omitted Week 11 v. PIT with Lamar and several others on Covid list
This chart tracks the Ravens’ offensive Adjusted Rating by each opponent’s season-long offensive rank. Four of their best offensive performances came against JAC (+0.58), WAS (+0.72), CIN (+1.22), and NYG (+2.09), who all fielded bad offenses. But they rarely played well against the NFL’s top offenses, including KC (-0.61), BUF (-072), TEN (-0.42 average), and IND (-0.64). They did play well against Cleveland, both in an early blowout and a late shootout. But the shootout was an outlier in the Ravens’ season.
The troubling thing for Baltimore is that Lamar Jackson has played significantly worse in his career against the best teams and in the biggest spots. This is not a knock on his competitiveness or talent; he is definitely one of the most competitive and talented players in the NFL. But his style can be shut down when a defense plays disciplined and focused, particularly if they can play single coverage and win the line battle. There is no athlete in the world who can consistently shed NFL tacklers without any room to run. And whether the blame falls on Lamar, the receiving corps, the offensive scheme, or a combination of all three, they simply haven’t been able to line up and beat good defenses through the air. And at times he can get visibly frustrated when things don’t go smoothly.
Lamar Jackson Career Splits
|Opponents||Games||Comp. %||YPA||Total TDs||INTs|
|v. Playoff Teams||18||59.8%||6.86||33||12|
|v. Non-Playoff Teams||23||66.0%||7.85||56||11|
*Lamar’s rushing yards are not included because his rushing efficiency and volume is essentially identical regardless of quality of opponent.
The difference in Lamar’s performance is particularly notable compared to other top quarterbacks who often elevate their game against the toughest opponents because more is required of them. These stats reveal is that Lamar is an efficient passer when the defense has to account for their run game. But when dropping back to pass in an obvious passing situation (which happens more frequently against better opponents), he can’t consistently beat the defense.
The solution for this offense is to keep doing what they do well and to hope that their defense can put them in situations where they can keep running. If they stay healthy, they are a virtual lock to make the playoffs because they consistently beat bad teams. But after 4 playoff games of evidence, there is little reason to expect this offense to take a leap forward once they get there in 2021.
The Ravens 6th-ranked defense did its part in 2020 to contribute to the Ravens’ success. Led by an excellent defensive line and a fearsome set of cornerbacks in Peters, Humphrey, and Smith, the Ravens performed well even against teams with multiple options in the passing game. Other than a game in which the Chiefs did whatever they wanted all night, the Ravens were particularly strong early in the season before they suffered some injury- and Covid-related absences, then finished strong with most of the team back healthy at the end of the year.
The easiest metric to show how the Ravens defense dropped off is to compare their performance when they had a healthy Calais Campbell against their performance when he was either injured or hobbling. He was a big part of their success (pun intended – the guy is huge), and during his time out they also had other key defenders in and out of the lineup.
This chart tracks the Ravens defensive Adjusted Rating in games they played with a healthy Campbell (Purple line) versus games they played where Campbell was either limited or out (gold line). Outside of the game against KC, they had a positive Adjusted Rating in every game with Campbell healthy but rarely played above expectation without him.
The Ravens were drastically better defending the pass than the run. In terms of yards per play, they were 4th in the NFL against the pass and 26th against the run. They blitzed more frequently than any NFL team and effectively got pressure on the quarterback, exerting the 4th-highest pressure rate. Opposing quarterbacks had to be really smart and play at a high level to succeed against the fierce pass rush and tight coverage. They played especially well against inexperienced quarterbacks, like in Week 5 when they absolutely destroyed Joe Burrow.
Their aggressive pass rush left them vulnerable on the ground, which compounded their tendency to be stronger with the lead. When teams were behind and had to pass against them, it played into their defensive strengths, just as it played into their offensive strengths to be able to run when ahead. So their defense also played a role in their NFL-leading 9 victories of 14+ points.
The Ravens played particularly well against teams with a high average depth of target on the season, because teams that rely on big plays need time for those plays to develop. The Ravens did not give them this time and their downfield coverage was solid.
This chart tracks the Ravens defensive Adjusted Rating by each opponent’s ADOT on the season. They played relatively well against deep passing teams like HOU (+1.10), PHI (+0.80), BUF (+0.83), and CIN (+1.51 average), but struggled relatively against the dink-and-dunk or run-heavy offenses that did not throw deep, like PIT (+0.03 average), NE (-0.57), and WAS (+0.35).
Overall, they could stop most teams in 2020. They were significantly worse when they were injured or facing Patrick Mahomes, who is an expert blitz-killer and matched up perfectly against their defensive style. They have struggled with Mahomes each of the last two seasons and that will likely continue into 2021. But outside of that matchup, they typically get the job done.
Putting it All Together
- The Ravens are fairly rated heading into the offseason. They were overrated heading into 2020 but now most people recognize that they are a good regular season team that is unlikely to go far in the playoffs.
- Comfortably back the Ravens as big favorites when projected to win both line battles, particularly against bad or inexperienced quarterbacks.
- Avoid betting on the Ravens against the best competition or when they project to play from behind due to the opponent’s offense.
- Expect the offense to outperform when they are able to run successfully.
- Expect the defense to outperform against teams that rely on downfield passing and/or teams that struggle to run the ball.
Fantasy and Player Prop Takeaways
- Lamar Jackson is a stud for fantasy purposes in most matchups. He provides a rushing floor and accounts for a high percentage of his team’s touchdowns. But I personally avoid drafting players who do not have room for improvement and Lamar likely hit his career peak in 2019. Running quarterbacks tend not to improve over the course of their career due to their play style. I’ll let others take the regression and/or injury risk.
- The Ravens don’t pass frequently enough for me to be interested in any receivers. Mark Andrews is a fine tight end only because of the dearth of quality at the position, but I prefer to target players in higher volume passing offenses.
- J.K. Dobbins is an extremely efficient running back but I see no reason to anticipate that he will not share the backfield once again in 2021. He also does not catch passes, because Lamar Jackson does not target running backs. It’s tough to imagine a scenario where he justifies his current ADP, despite his talent.
- Wide receivers against Baltimore should be downgraded generally. Avoid players against Baltimore if possible because the offense also controls the clock well by keeping drives alive.
Application: SharpClarke Bet of the Year
In the Wild Card round, my Spotlight game of the week was Ravens-Titans. I wrote “I love the Ravens so much that it’s making me question my single-game limit on betting.” I projected the Ravens to be able to shut down Derrick Henry and then lock down the Titans’ few weapons on offense. This meant that they would be playing with the lead against one of the NFL’s worst defenses. I put 5 Units on BAL -3, and after a jittery start I was happy to see the Ravens shut down the Titans in a 20-13 win. I was a bit surprised by how poorly the Ravens offense played, but learned a lot about how the Titans were able to combat Jackson. When you win and learn something in the same game, that’s always a favorable outcome.