During the first quarter of the Ravens’ season opener last year, Lamar Jackson faked a handoff to Mark Ingram and spied Marquise Brown cutting upfield on a quick slant. Brown got inside position against Miami Dolphins safety Eric Rowe, and Jackson’s pass hit Brown perfectly in stride. With nothing but green grass in front of him, Brown outraced everyone for a 47-yard touchdown on his first NFL catch.
Later in that same game, Jackson lofted an 83-yard touchdown strike to Brown, who got behind the defense as Jackson took his first steps on what would become an MVP season.
Those plays, perhaps as much as any last season, represent how the Ravens hope to advance their record-setting offense this year.
Those plays notwithstanding, the Ravens’ rebuilt offense last season was firmly rooted on the ground, becoming the most prolific running attack in NFL history. But with Brown fully healthy for the first time as a pro, with the anticipated impact of other speedy receivers, and with the continued advancement of the singularly talented Jackson, the Ravens envision a diverse, more complex passing game as the next step toward what general manager Eric DeCosta calls an “undefendable” offense.
The Ravens vow they will remain a run-first offense that wants to get the lead, hold the lead, chew up the clock and limit possessions. Running counter to today’s pass-happy NFL, that’s the formula that led the Ravens to a franchise-best 14-2 record last year. They aren’t taking the foot off the gas, either, adding Ohio State star running back J.K. Dobbins to an attack that, led by 1,000-yard rushers Jackson (1,206) and Ingram (1,018), set an NFL record with 3,296 rushing yards last season.
But if opponents stack the box to defend the run, head coach John Harbaugh says the Ravens need to “make them pay for it.”
“Those corners are going to be one-on-one and those safeties are going to be one-on-one against receivers, especially on some downfield throws, and we gotta make them pay for it,” Harbaugh said during a question-and-answer session with season-ticket holders this spring.
“The ability to make them pay for tilting their defense toward stopping our run game,” Harbaugh said, is “the next step of this offense.”
“A Chess Game”
That begins with the continued ascent of Jackson, whose meteoric rise last season was capped with the league’s Most Valuable Player award.
Jackson juked and dazzled to 1,206 rushing yards — the most ever for an NFL quarterback — and threw a league-best and franchise-record 36 touchdowns, with just six interceptions. With a passer rating of 113.3 that ranked third in the league and set another franchise record, Jackson silenced many of the critics who had questioned the former Heisman Trophy winner’s passing ability.
Still, Jackson and the Ravens see room for improvement.
“I feel we need to hit a lot more deep passes than we did last year,” Jackson said.
Jackson ranked 22nd in the league in completion rate on passes of at least 15 yards last season, according to ESPN, and he tied for 11th in the league in yards per attempt (7.8). According to the NFL’s Next Gen Stats, the only area of the field in which Jackson’s passer rating fell below the league average was on deep balls down the left sideline; he fared slightly better than average on deep balls down the right sideline, and he excelled in every other zone of the field.
The Ravens still have sure-handed veteran Willie Snead and Pro Bowl tight end Mark Andrews to anchor the intermediate passing game, but a healthy Brown, an emerging Miles Boykin and rookie playmaker Devin Duvernay could elevate the passing game by stretching the field more than the Ravens did last season.
That would give the Ravens the quick-strike capability to play from behind if need be — one charge against a run-first attack is that it is ill-suited to mount a quick comeback — but also to hurt opponents if they crowd the line of scrimmage to defend the run.
Harbaugh refers to it as “a chess game.”
“The idea is to force people to defend certain things,” Harbaugh said. “Hopefully they can’t do it in a balanced way, and you have to overcommit resources to certain aspects of the game.”
Harbaugh stressed that the goal isn’t just airing out deep balls downfield, but rather using all their route trees and “pushing the ball to spots where the defense is not.”
All Eyes On Young Receivers
The Ravens steered clear of the free-agent market at wide receiver and bid farewell to Seth Roberts after one undistinguished season with the Ravens (21 catches, 271 yards), and they are entrusting the passing game to young hands. It helps that Brown appears fully healthy.
Despite his lightning-bolt start last season — his touchdowns of 47 and 83 yards at Miami came on his first two NFL catches — Brown by his own admission was never 100 percent. He sat out much of last preseason recovering from offseason foot surgery, and then he missed two midseason games with an ankle injury sustained at Pittsburgh in Week 5.
Brown finished the season with 46 catches for 584 yards and seven touchdowns, which tied the record for a Ravens rookie wide receiver, but a healthy Brown should have more burst and speed this year. Brown spent time during the pandemic-altered offseason working out with Jackson in their native Florida, and that should help the development of both players.
Brown has the pedigree — and the pressure — of being a former first-round pick, but the Ravens also are expecting major contributions from second-year receiver Miles Boykin, taken two rounds after Brown in last year’s draft.
Boykin’s contributions were sporadic as a rookie, with 13 catches for 198 yards and three touchdowns, but at 6-foot-4 and 220 pounds, he is the team’s most physically imposing receiver. And Boykin, like Snead, proved to be an exceptional downfield blocker, which carries a lot of value in this offense. Watch some of the Ravens’ best runs last season, and there’s a good chance Boykin was involved downfield.
This year, though, the Ravens are going to “load [Boykin’s] plate a lot more … and really ask a lot of him,” offensive coordinator Greg Roman said.
“We really feel like he’s going to take a giant step,” Roman added.
In a draft that was considered historically strong at wide receiver, the Ravens steered clear of the position in the first two rounds before selecting Duvernay out of Texas in the third round, a pick that elicited an excited fist pump from Harbaugh during the draft.
“The No. 1 priority for us was to get a fast guy,” Harbaugh said.
Duvernay’s 40-yard dash time at the NFL Scouting Combine (4.39) ranked fifth among receivers. But as much as they like Duvernay’s speed, Harbaugh and DeCosta might like his toughness even more. DeCosta has likened Duvernay to former Ravens Anquan Boldin and Steve Smith.
“In his career, he had over 160 catches with one drop,” Harbaugh said. “I didn’t see a drop on tape this last year. [He had] numerous catches over the top of guys. He’s only 5-10, but a strong, tough, real competitive guy.”
Later in the draft, the Ravens added SMU receiver James Proche, who led all of FBS football this past season with 111 catches and is a favorite to win the punt return job.
A healthy Brown, coupled with the new receivers, has made the Ravens’ passing attack younger, faster and, they hope, more expansive. It has essentially given Roman, the architect of this revolutionary offense, more toys in the chest.
“How our new personnel fits together, I think will naturally shift us a little bit,” Roman said. “It won’t be the same, but we’re going to keep pushing the envelope.”
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