Lamar Jackson is undoubtedly one of the most talented and exhilarating young quarterbacks in the league. In 2019, he proved exactly what he is capable of. Not only did he captain the league’s number one offense, but he also took home the NFL MVP award. Even more impressively, he won the MVP with a unanimous selection, joining Tom Brady as the only two players to ever accomplish that feat.
It’s easy to argue that Jackson is the most important part of the Ravens’ offense. Yet that would be overlooking another key piece in the team’s offensive strategy: their tight ends. FiveThirtyEight recently broke down the unique way the Ravens utilized their tight ends.
Changing offensive tactics in the NFL
As pretty much any football fan can tell you, the league has undergone a significant revolution in the last decade. Gone are the days when teams built their offenses primarily around rushing. On the contrary, NFL teams seem to be embracing a pass-first philosophy more and more, with the running game increasingly viewed as ineffective and out-of-date.
That stylistic shift has led to corresponding changes in the types of formations that teams use most. In the golden age of football, teams utilized heavy formations much more frequently. At their simplest, heavy formations are built for the running game, with beefier lineman and usually no more than two wide receivers.
Today, thanks to the dominance of the passing game, teams favor spread offenses to a much greater degree. A spread offense stretches out the offensive line, with as many as four wide receivers on the field.
That creates the kind of space necessary for speedy runners to get out into the open field and receive passes from the quarterback, who is usually in the shotgun formation.
Lamar Jackson and the Ravens go against the grain
As the FiveThirtyEight article pointed out, teams not named the Ravens used heavy formations on a mere 27 percent of their plays. The Ravens, by contrast, used heavy formations a whopping 42.7 percent of the time. In other words, the Ravens used heavy formations nearly twice as often as the rest of the league, dominating their opponents in the process.
Those heavy formations were built around fullback Patrick Ricard and the Ravens’ trio of talented tight ends: Mark Andrews, Nick Boyle, and Hayden Hurst.
Virtually all of the team’s heavy formations featured Ricard and two of the three tight ends. The strange thing is that those sets didn’t exactly excel when it came to rushing. In fact, the Ravens logged more rushing yards on spread sets than on heavy sets.
Instead, the Ravens’ heavy sets worked counterintuitively to open up the passing game, by forcing opponents into problematic mismatches. Guarded by heavy, ground-bound defenders, the Ravens’ tight ends could easily get free to receive passes. As a group, Baltimore’s tight ends (plus Ricard) racked up almost half of the team’s receiving yards and touchdowns.
The Ravens’ offensive approach for 2020
One of the biggest questions about the 2020 NFL season is whether the Ravens will continue to emphasize heavy formations to such a large degree. Most pundits seem to think they will — after all, with the exception of Baltimore’s postseason loss to the Tennessee Titans, opponents continued to struggle against the onslaught of Raven tight ends.
Of course, some things have changed. Most importantly, the Ravens traded away productive tight end Hayden Hurst this offseason. Yet they also signed two undrafted tight end rookies in Jacob Breeland and Eli Wolf, both of whom present considerable upside.
Meanwhile, tight end Charles Scarff will likely be motivated to work his way up from the practice squad into the regular rotation. All of that would seem to suggest that the Ravens intend to continue bucking league trends as long as the approach keeps paying dividends.