Last week, I wrote an article addressing the hype surrounding the Cleveland Browns. Specifically, how many have anointed them the team to beat in the AFC North. The Browns have no doubt made impressive strides in the last year but they are yet to prove themselves the only place it counts - on the field. Until they do, the North remains a two-team division. Those teams, of course, are Pittsburgh and Baltimore.
Since the North was created in 2002, Pittsburgh has claimed eight division titles while the Ravens have won five, including last season. The two franchises have accounted for four Super Bowl appearances and three titles over that span. Cincinnati’s four division crowns feel like an aberration by comparison, especially since they produced a total of zero playoff wins. The Browns have yet to win the North. And so, until Cleveland actually breaks through, it remains Pittsburgh and Baltimore.
Fueling the Cleveland hype-train is the fact that, like their Steel City counterparts, the Ravens are a team in transition. On the defensive side of the ball, they have lost veterans Terrell Suggs, Za’Darious Smith, C.J. Mosley and Eric Weddle. Earl Thomas, whose injury issues have sidetracked what once looked like a Hall of Fame career, has been brought in from Seattle to fill the void on the back end left by Weddle’s departure. The front seven, however, will lean heavily on young players and new faces.
The offense began its transition a bit sooner when they benched one-time franchise quarterback Joe Flacco midway through 2018 in favor of rookie Lamar Jackson. Flacco parlayed a 2013 Super Bowl win into a giant pile of cash and not much else. His lack of mobility and regression as a passer, illuminated by a stat line of 110 touchdown passes and 70 interceptions since 2013, which translates to a pedestrian 1.6 touchdown to interception ratio, made him expendable with Jackson on deck. Flacco was traded to Denver in February, meaning the Baltimore offense belongs to Jackson now.
Rarely have I seen a team attempt to transition so completely from one style of quarterback to another. Flacco, at 6’6, is built like a bamboo shoot. He possesses a big arm and a knack for mixing the dink and dunk checkdown game with the home run deep ball (what some around BTSC have dubbed the “Heave and Pray”). He is the classic pocket quarterback in that he does not leave the pocket. When he does, he moves with the grace of a baby giraffe learning to walk.
Jackson, on the other hand, is shorter at 6’2 and a sturdy 215 pounds. He moves effortlessly and accelerates like a sports car. He rushed for 695 yards and five touchdowns last season and looked like the best quarterback running in the open field since prime Michael Vick. He has a powerful arm but is not particularly accurate, as evidenced by his 58.2 completion percentage. And he is by no means a developed pocket passer. Jackson has a long way to go before he understands the nuances of the progression passing game the way Flacco did.
As dramatic as the transition from Flacco to Jackson is, the Ravens managed to do something fairly remarkable: they made it mid-season, completely revamped the offense and managed to get better while doing so. Take a look:
The Ravens improved in most crucial measurables, including yards per game and points per game while maintaining the same turnover rate. Most importantly, they went from 4-5 under Flacco to 6-1 under Jackson. They did this while completely transforming their style of play. Under Flacco, 74.5% of their yards came from the passing game while just over 25% came via the run. Under Jackson, that split became 60/40 in favor of the run game. Kudos to the Baltimore staff for having both the courage to move on from Flacco and for figuring out how best to revamp the offense under Jackson.
Interestingly, Marty Mornhinweg, who directed the offense in 2018, has been replaced as offensive coordinator by tight ends coach Greg Roman. Roman also had the title of run game coordinator in Baltimore and was an assistant on Jim Harbaugh’s staff in San Francisco when Colin Kaepernick had his best seasons there. According to an article by Clifton Brown on the Ravens official team website, Baltimore is thought to have used some of the same run concepts and blocking schemes with Jackson at quarterback as the 49ers did with Kaepernick. Presumably, they believe Roman will be better for Jackson’s development than was Mornhinweg because he will run an offense better tailored to Jackson’s abilities.
What are Jackson’s abilities, then? And with him at the helm, what might we see from the Baltimore offense? Most importantly, how might we stop it? Here are some thoughts.
WHAT DOES THE BALTIMORE OFFENSE LOOK LIKE UNDER JACKSON?
Flacco was benched after we’d played our Baltimore portion of last year’s schedule, so we only got a look at Jackson in his role as a sub-package quarterback. That consisted mostly of him running sweeps from unbalanced formations and occasionally throwing the ball into the flat off of play-action. In two games against us Jackson carried the ball nine times for 27 yards and was 1-1 passing for 12 yards. Nothing earth-shattering there. Jackson was generally easy to defend because he came into the game with a small package of prepared plays that inevitably involved simple quarterback runs (sweep, zone read) paired with play-action passes. There were no coverage beaters, read progressions or audibles involved. Pretty vanilla stuff.
Once Jackson took over as the starter, Baltimore evolved fairly quickly. They did a nice job mixing spread sets that opened up the middle of the field and let Jackson run between the hashes with heavier sets that employed fullbacks, extra offensive linemen and multiple tight ends. The heavy sets forced defenses to counter with bigger, slower personnel of their own, thus creating an advantage for the uber-athletic Jackson on edge plays like bootlegs, zone reads, designed sweeps and scrambles.
Here we see Jackson running the Power Read concept from an 11 personnel set against Kansas City. 11 personnel creates a six-man box at the snap and allows the Ravens to block all of the interior defenders while Jackson reads end Dee Ford (#55). If Ford sits inside, Jackson will give the ball to running back Ty Montgomery on the outside handoff. If Ford widens with Montgomery, Jackson will pull the ball and run inside of him behind guard James Hurst (#74). Ford widens, so Jackson pulls and goes. This is a classic high school and college scheme that plays into Jackson’s comfort zone and maximizes his best skill - speed.
The Ravens also went fairly heavy on RPOs which gave Jackson the choice to run or pass the football. Here's one against Atlanta where Jackson actually has three options on the play. He will read the left defensive end (#50) to decide whether to give the ball on an inside handoff or pull it and attack the edge (this is the opposite read of what we just saw above). The end comes down to play the dive so Jackson pulls the ball and gets outside. He runs parallel to the line of scrimmage because he now has a pass option. He can throw the football to any of the receivers running the post-wheel-flat combo into the boundary. On 3rd and 3, Jackson is likely looking for tight end Hayden Hurst (#81) in the flat. When two Atlanta defenders chase Hurst, Jackson chooses option number three and runs it himself.
This is fairly standard stuff at the lower levels of football where high school and even college teams often put their best athlete at quarterback and create schemes that let him run around. We rarely see anything like this at the pro level, however. The 1st-level zone read has been here for a while but the Ravens are tapping into 2nd and even 3rd level reads to create complications for defenses all over the field. On this play alone, Atlanta must defend the inside zone run play, a three-receiver combo route and the quarterback running the football on the edge. If Jackson makes the right reads and the Ravens execute properly, he can make the defense wrong no matter what they do.
When the running game was working, the Ravens were then able to take advantage of play-action and let Jackson throw from the pocket. His tight ends were his favorite targets and, as a substitute for Flacco’s outside deep ball ability, he often looked to them to create explosive plays. With Flacco as the starter, Raven tight ends averaged 11.7 yards per catch. That number increased to 15.1 with Jackson at the helm.
Here’s a home run from Jackson to TE Mark Andrews against the Raiders. Baltimore compresses the Oakland defense with a tightly-packed unbalanced set featuring two tight ends to the right side of the formation. Notice how the corner (#22) is rolled up almost to the line of scrimmage. Baltimore will run a two-vertical concept with the tight ends. The inside route holds the safety while Andrews widens and runs past the corner, who is frozen by the run fake and the threat of Jackson pulling the ball and attacking the edge with his feet. Jackson’s running ability sets up explosive plays like this because it forces defenders to account for the quarterback as though he were a running back. The corner tries to serve two masters here - defend both the run and the pass - and it gets him beat.
Another reason Jackson may lean so heavily on his tight ends is because Baltimore lacks play-makers at wide receiver. After letting Michael Crabtree walk in free agency, their top three are currently Willie Sneed (62 receptions-651 yards), Chris Moore (19-196) and Jordan Lasley, a 5th round pick in 2018 who caught no passes. Odds are strong the Ravens will upgrade the position either in the remaining free agent market or with a high draft pick. Still, their receiving corps will frighten no one.
Fortunately for Jackson, the Ravens are deeper at tight end than at receiver (as they always seem to be). Nick Boyle, Mark Andrews and Hayden Hurst all return (one-time BTSC draft crush Maxx Williams is a free agent after an uninspiring tenure in Baltimore). That trio combined for 70 catches for 928 yards and four touchdowns in 2018. They are the keys to making this Baltimore offense go, as Jackson’s strengths play towards 11, 12, 21 and 22 personnel groups and the use of play-action passes like the one above that exploit aggressive defenders who over-commit to the run. Baltimore can afford to play those heavy groups because they return a stout offensive line and they signed running back Mark Ingram to help them pound the ball between the tackles. They are constructed to operate from the inside-out.
The bottom line on the Baltimore offense, then, is this: they want to pound the rock inside, get Jackson free in space and use the run to set up the pass. Defenses will have to be physical up front and fast on the perimeter in order to contain them.
HOW MIGHT THE STEELERS DEFEND BALTIMORE?
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette writer Ray Fittipaldo stated in one of his recent online chats that defensive coordinator Keith Butler has admitted the Steelers are preparing defenses for Jackson. What might some of those be? Since the NFL is a copycat league, let’s start with the AFC Wild Card game between the Ravens and Chargers last January.
The highlights of Jackson running wild all look pretty scary, which is what much of the NFL seemed to think until Los Angeles stymied the Baltimore offense in the playoffs. The Chargers seemed to created a template for defending Jackson by employing seven defensive backs and playing with no true linebackers in the box for all but one snap as they held the Ravens to 11 first downs and 229 yards in a 23-17 win. LA’s commitment to speed at the second level to defend the perimeter while managing not to get gashed between the tackles seemed like a genius move until New England (who else?) subsequently exploited it in the Divisional round with 21 personnel power football and better in-line blocking from Rob Gronkowski than the Ravens managed with their collection of tight ends.
Still, the LA scheme was some brilliant, outside-the-box thinking. Jackson is an outside-the-box quarterback so the solution to stopping him likely required the same. The Chargers did so by rolling their stud rookie safety Derwin James into the box and pairing him with fellow safeties Adrian Phillips and Jahleel Addae. They now had three sub 4.5 guys at the linebacker level to chase Jackson on the perimeter. In order to keep Baltimore from slamming the ball inside at their “linebackers,” LA went heavy on a Bear front that covered the center and one or both guards so they could not climb to the linebacker level. This let the converted safeties run free to the football. The base front looked like this:
There are four LA defensive backs lined up across the second level. The Baltimore center, guard and tackle to the boundary are covered by the nose, defensive tackle and edge defender, leaving no one to block James (circled). Baltimore has a physical advantage to the strength of the formation, where they can use their tight end and fullback to run a power-gap concept against LA’s smaller personnel. But with the fast, aggressive James free to run to the football from the back side, that advantage is nullified. If Baltimore wants to fake the power run and boot Jackson into the boundary, James has no pass responsibility and is free to pursue him. And if Baltimore wants to run a zone or power read scheme to the field, LA has speed in the alley. They also have seven defensive backs on the field to play their cover-1 man scheme, meaning there are no mismatches of more athletic Baltimore receivers paired up against LA linebackers (cough cough).
The Steelers will likely look to mimic this scheme in some fashion by putting as much speed on the field as possible to defend Baltimore. The signing of Mark Barron is ideal in this regard as he gives them an interior backer with lateral speed who can also kick outside to fulfill the “box safety” role they experimented with last year using Terrell Edmunds and Morgan Burnett. Barron or Edwards could both play the Derwin James role above, provided the Steelers corners can lock down Baltimore‘s receivers on the outside.
Most likely, though, the Steelers would leave Barron inside and put true defensive backs in the alleys. If we plug Steelers’ personnel into the scheme LA used, it might look something like this:
This look would mirror, to a degree, the look LA employed. At the first level, Watt and our front three of Heyward, Tuitt and Hargrave are solid run defenders and will do a good job occupying Baltimore’s blockers and not getting moved off the ball. In the secondary, Haden and Nelson should be trusted to play man coverage against Baltimore’s mediocre corps of receivers while Hilton and Davis would likely bracket the tight end in coverage. So far, so good. The challenge, then, is finding the right players to plug in at the second level.
Edmunds and Hilton are both fast enough to defend Jackson in the alley and are solid tacklers. Barron, a trained safety now playing linebacker, would provide plenty of speed inside. Who is that fourth guy, though? The player who would become the de facto Buck linebacker playing to the strength of the formation? Would the Steelers try to use a true safety there, as LA did, by plugging in a guy like Jordan Dangerfield? It worked for LA, although the thought of Dangerfield assuming the responsibilities of the Buck is sure to raise concerns.
If the Steelers were intent on using seven DBs like LA did (with Barron counting as the 7th), they could put Edmunds at the Buck and play Dangerfield or perhaps Marcus Allen in the weak side alley. In the LA defense, that weak side alley player was key because he was the unblocked player on strong-side runs who was free to run to the football and make plays. Derwin James made five solo tackles in the playoff game against the Ravens, including a tackle for loss. Can Dangerfield be trusted to make those plays? Can Allen?
What about playing Allen inside at the Buck? He’s certainly big enough. But is he ready for that type of role? If not, maybe they keep Edmunds in the alley and use Jon Bostic at the Buck. Bostic doesn’t have the lateral speed of a safety but he’s not exactly slow. Or maybe, assuming they see stopping Jackson and the Ravens as Priority #1 to reclaiming the North, they shock the world and trade all the way into the top 10 in the upcoming draft to grab LSU’s Devin White, whose combination of physicality and athleticism would make him ideal to play the Buck in this particular defense. An interior of White and Barron with Edmunds and Hilton on the edge would give the Steelers better second level talent than the group LA had success with in January.
Given what it would cost to move up that high, odds of the Steelers acquiring White appear thin, however. What about Devin Bush, then? Bush’s 40 time at the Combine was just a hair slower than White’s. Perhaps Bush is the missing piece at the Buck if they can manage to draft him. There appear to be a host of options but no clear idea yet which is best. Whatever it is, the Steelers are surely considering this scheme, or something similar, in their off-season preparations for Baltimore. The key to stopping this new-look Ravens offense could be the Steelers’ ability to find that missing second-level piece.
Given that Baltimore has now had an off-season to study what LA did, they will undoubtedly have a response for this type of look. What will it be? Spread sets that force safeties like Edmunds into coverage against quick slot receivers? Seven and eight-man blocking surfaces that reduce the ability of defenses to cover up offensive linemen and allow them to climb to the smaller defenders at the second level? Are they working hard on Jackson’s ability to recognize man coverage and audible to those particular coverage beaters? We shall see.
The key from a defensive perspective is being able to match personnel with versatile defenders. If Baltimore goes heavy the Steelers will respond. If Baltimore goes quick the Steelers will respond. But what if Baltimore figures out how to get into multiple looks without changing personnel? This is one of the things that has made New England so effective for so long. The Patriots have found ways to line up in heavy sets and spread sets and pretty much everything in between without having to substitute. Having a freak like Rob Gronkowski obviously helped them do this, as Gronk could line up out wide in an empty set and then put his hand down and run block with equal effectiveness. The benefit of this was it let New England exploit just about any personnel package a defense put on the field. Go with speed to counter New England’s spread sets and they would pound the ball. Go heavy and they would spread the field.
Given how LA neutralized Jackson with speed at the second level, the key for Baltimore will be figuring out how to exploit that look. They can’t just bring in a bunch of big guys because the defense will sub to match them. How, then, will they seek mismatches from their base 21 personnel group? And how might we respond?
I don’t have the answer to the former question, but the key to the latter is to acquire versatile defenders who can do more than one thing well. Mark Barron fits this mold as he can play both in the box and in the alley when needed to. Edmunds is this type of player as well with his (hopefully improving) ability to play two-high safety and his physicality at the second level. I believe the Steelers drafted Marcus Allen last year with this thought in mind as well. Given the emergence of Jackson in Baltimore, the Steelers may again seek hybrid types, possibly at edge, inside backer or safety, in the upcoming draft.
What’s the moral of this story, then? For Baltimore, it’s maximizing Jackson’s unique athleticism in a way that creates mismatches while helping him develop as a pocket passer so that teams cannot load up against the run. For Pittsburgh, it’s finding enough versatile defenders to counter whatever look Baltimore presents. The chess match is on, then. No disrespect to Cleveland, but whichever staff wins it may once again find themselves kings of the North.