As the Ravens prepare for their highly anticipated playoff rematch with the Tennessee Titans Jan. 10, quarterback Lamar Jackson’s 0-2 playoff mark is the headline narrative. But another person who is under the microscope this week is offensive coordinator Greg Roman, who faced much criticism after the playoff loss to the Titans last year and has been a lightning rod of sorts after Ravens losses.
To his credit, Roman has been the creative architect of one of the most prolific rushing attacks in NFL history. The Ravens last season set the all-time NFL single-season rushing record with 3,296 yards, and this year’s team ran roughshod over opponents during the final month of the season, capped by a team-record 404 rushing yards at Cincinnati in the regular-season finale.
Led by Jackson, the first quarterback ever with two 1,000-yard rushing seasons, the Ravens again led the league in rushing this year, averaging 191.9 rushing yards a game.
But in high-profile losses, including last year’s playoff game against Tennessee, whether rattled by early deficits or trying to attack an opposing weakness, the Ravens seemed to quickly veer away from that dynamic ground game. That has taken the Ravens out of their element, putting the onus on a passing game that hasn’t been nearly as effective.
Is it a fair charge? When the Ravens fall behind by a significant amount early — which hasn’t happened much in the Jackson era — is Roman too quick to get away from what the Ravens do best? Does he, essentially, start swinging for three-run home runs down by four in the second inning?
“Nobody looks at the play-calling more than Greg Roman,” said head coach John Harbaugh, defending Roman’s play-calling after a 34-20 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs this season. Harbaugh added that Roman “in my opinion, is one of the best play-callers in the National Football League and has proven that.”
“We’re a running team,” Harbaugh added. “We want to run the ball as much as we can. We also want to … complete passes and keep drives alive. And the more first downs you get, the more drives you extend, the more opportunities you have to both run and pass.”
It’s easy to dissect any given call, Harbaugh said, but he stressed, “We’re not going to get away from being a running team.”
Still, the playoff loss to the Titans last year stands out as one when the Ravens quickly got away from what they do best, perhaps rattled by a stunning two-play sequence that led to a 14-0 deficit.
With the Titans leading 7-0 as the second quarter began, the Ravens opted to go for the first down on fourth-and-1 from their own 45-yard line. Jackson took the shotgun snap and was stuffed for no gain. On the next play, Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill lofted a 45-yard touchdown pass to Kalif Raymond.
Suddenly, the Ravens went from having the ball near midfield to trailing by two scores for the first time in more than three months.
On the Ravens next series, Jackson dropped back to throw on each of their three offensive snaps. He threw incomplete on first down (a good pass down the left sideline that was dropped by Seth Roberts), scrambled for 2 yards on second down and threw incomplete on third down, forcing a punt.
On their final two drives of the half, the Ravens ran the ball six times and looked to pass 19 times. (Jackson was sacked twice.) Then when the third quarter opened, trailing 14-6, the Ravens again came out looking to throw. Jackson dropped back to pass on eight of the first 11 plays of the second half, although he ultimately turned two of those into runs with scrambles.
In the wake of the 28-12 loss, Harbaugh maintained that the run-pass balance didn’t skew badly until the game was out of hand. The Ravens, who trailed 28-6 after three quarters, finished with 29 rushes and a career-high 59 passes by Jackson.
But the belief that Roman quickly went away from his team’s strong suit seems justified.
Similar questions arose this season when the Ravens were beaten by the defending Super Bowl champion Chiefs in Week 3. Against a Chiefs defense that had struggled to stop the run in its first two games, the Ravens in the first half called 17 pass plays (two ended in sacks) and nine runs, despite averaging nearly 8 yards a carry on those plays (9-71).
Trailing 13-10 in the second quarter, they had a quick three-and-out that featured three straight pass attempts, and the lack of rhythm on offense contributed to a 27-10 halftime deficit. Their only touchdown of the half was a 93-yard kickoff return by Devin Duvernay.
To be sure — and Harbaugh has said as much — play-calling criticism comes with the territory of the offensive coordinator, and it’s too simplistic to pin the playoff loss to the Titans last year solely on play-calling.
The bottom line is the Titans executed better on both sides of the ball. They stuffed two Ravens fourth-and-1 plays, they made terrific catches, and the Ravens dropped several passes, including the long throw to Roberts that might have been a touchdown.
Many plays that were called were there to be made and just weren’t. If a few of those plays connect, perhaps no one is questioning why Gus Edwards carried just three times the entire game, just once after the opening series.
Still, after that loss to the Chiefs, Roman acknowledged that “I think after any game that you don’t win, you’re always going to look back and kind of do an after-game report on what we did, what we’re going to do next time differently, et cetera. Then, obviously, you have to really focus on where we can improve.”
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